Dairy feeding

With tight margins putting pressure on dairy farmers, it behooves them to avoid dead weight. That’s true with heifer replacement among other things.

Technology plays a role in helping them make decisions on culling heifers that may benefit the business.

“The dairy industry has had a huge transformation lately,” said Kevin Devore of semen broker ABS Global. “The percentage of cows producing the milk are using either sorted semen to get their replacements and beef semen on the bottom ends of their herds.”

Genomic testing products are designed to help identify females with the greatest potential to help reach herd health and profitability goals.

Whether utilizing such high-tech tools or using a mixture of experience, observation and record-keeping, decisions on heifer retention can greatly affect the bottom line of a dairy.

Carlyle, Illinois, dairyman Aaron Hilmes is a believer in technology, but he doesn’t use genetic testing for his herd. That’s partly because he doesn’t use full-bred animals.

“A lot nowadays is done with scientific genomic testing,” he said. “But I don’t do that because genomics is strong only if you run an all-Holstein or all-Jersey or all-Guernsey herd, and I do a lot of mixed breeding here.”

Hilmes relies on his eyesight and experience when determining which heifers to scrap and which to add to his milking herd.

“When I cull out my heifers, it’s 100% done with scouting by my eyes,” he said. “If an animal has respiratory problems or other issues, won’t even calve them then. If they don’t perform in two months, we know.”

Iowa State University professor emeritus Leo Timms said historical trends have been turned upside-down.

“If you go back 20 to 25 years, when milk price went up, heifer prices went up with them,” he said. “For the first time in decades, that’s no longer the case. It’s supply and demand; there are too many. There aren’t tons of people looking for them.

“More importantly, people are asking why they’re raising all these females. Although milk prices go up, nobody’s buying them. To get that female to sell or put in the herd, it costs somewhere around $1,500 to $2,400. If I tried to sell her today, I might get $1,000.”

That has led many dairy producers to focus on converting parts of their herds to beef.

“There’s been a huge shift to breed to beef, and the beef industry needs beef. And they like crossbred carcasses even better than Holstein carcasses,” Timms said. “That calf could be worth two to four times more than if you put her on the ground as a Holstein dairy bull or heifer from day one.”

Such decisions begin on paper.

“Guys need to figure out what their culling rate is, and how many heifers they need to maintain their herd size, whether that’s 30% or 25%, that magic number for individual farms,” Devore said. “They try to target that to make enough replacements for themselves off the best genetics, using the best bulls available to make their replacement heifers.”

Replacement animals typically account for 15 to 20% of milk production costs, according to a study done jointly by Jud Heinrichs of Pennsylvania State University and Peter Tozer of Massey University in New Zealand.

They said replacement heifers rank as the second or third largest component of production costs after feed and possibly labor on most dairy farms. These costs can vary from farm to farm depending on individual management strategies.

Devore points to shifting values of dairy animals.

“The old logic that a Holstein heifer is always going to be worth more than a Holstein bull or a beef-cross calf has probably gone out the window,” he said. “With the surplus of milk we have in the shed, that’s not the case anymore.”

Timms agrees that genetic testing can be an important tool in determining value, but the $40 per-animal price tag may not be palatable to dairymen struggling with the bottom line. Sexed semen — which can nearly guarantee the birth of females — may be in the same category.

“A straight Holstein calf has decreased in value as well,” Devore said. “By picking proper genetics, they can make some pretty good advancements and putting it toward the beef industry.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.