Managing heifer inventory: Ensuring the future of your operations

Kelly Sporer from CentralStar Cooperative Inc. shared her insights on managing heifer inventory during a Heifer Academy webinar hosted by Dairy Educator Cora Okkema.

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Managing heifer inventory is crucial for the long-term success and sustainability of dairy farming operations. Effective heifer management strategies can help farms reduce costs, improve animal welfare, and ensure a steady supply of high-quality milk and dairy replacements. This article discusses the importance of managing heifer inventory and provides insights into best practices and strategies.

Industry trends and background

Recent trends indicate that heifer numbers are at an all-time low, driving up the value of heifers. In 2024, the industry will only support a 27.7% cull rate, forcing the maintenance of cows for an average of 3.6 lactations due to low heifer inventory, according to the USDA NASS Cattle Inventory Report. Reproduction rates have improved significantly over the years, with the average pregnancy rate now around 28%, and some herds even surpassing 30%, as shared by Sporer. The NAHMS Dairy Study Calf Component, reported in September 2021, showed that dairy calf health metrics had improved, with morbidity rates at 33.8% and mortality rates down to 5%. Alongside the shift in overall animal health, the use of beef and sexed semen has increased, optimizing the production of high-quality calves.

Why should we manage heifer inventory?

Effective heifer inventory management offers several benefits. Raising a heifer from birth to freshening costs about $2,500, with 50% of this cost being feed. It takes 1.5 to 2 lactations for a heifer to pay for her replacement cost. Managing inventory prevents overproduction, saving money. Likewise, when faced with a large influx of calves, resources can be strained. This includes staff, time and supplies. For example, a herd with 96 calves born in December, which usually has 50-60 calves in a month, saw a spike in calf deaths. Preparing for influxes and evaluating breeding patterns to offset potential influxes can help your calf care staff down the line. This can potentially be done through strategic use of beef and dairy market trends. Creating tailored management plans with your trusted advisors can set your farm up to create premium replacements that become super stars in the parlor.

Challenges and opportunities with excess heifers  

Excess heifers can cause overcrowded pens and delayed movement to breeding pens, resulting in greater health risks, higher costs and lower efficiency. An extreme case that Kelly worked with was a herd that had a widespread between time of first service and age at first service. Some heifers were getting their first service past 500 days (16+ months), leading to increasing days on feed and reducing reproductive efficiency. Overcrowding causes more health events and stress, leading to reproductive issues and higher non-completion rates. Optimizing heifer numbers improves pen stocking, reduces stress and enhances reproductive efficiency, leading to better performance and lower costs. Optimal herd composition includes ~32% first lactation, ~27% second lactation and ~41% third plus lactation cows. Maintaining an optimal number of mature cows (third lactation or above) ensures high milk production. Find your “golden girls”—mature cows that have paid for themselves and are now turning a profit—and look back at how they got there. Excellent cow comfort, transition care and appropriate pen stocking are essential for high-producing, sustainable herds.

The importance of beef dairy cross calves

The U.S. native beef herd inventory is at a record low, and it is expected to take years to recover. In response, dairy farmers began creating beef x dairy crosses. Over time, the quality of beef x dairy cross calves has improved, with better daily gains and carcass quality, primarily from improved sire genetics. The price of beef x dairy cross calves continues to increase, providing an economic benefit over raising unnecessary heifers. The traceability of these animals has become quite important to beef customers, and with the dairy industry’s level of recordkeeping, this can be met with ease. This practice opens the door of opportunity for farms to focus on creating the optimal amount of heifers for a greater return of investment for inputs.  

Reproduction and genetic management program

There are multiple tools available that help producers achieve optimal replacement numbers, even calf flow and genetic progress. Herd variables like heifer non-completion rate, cull rate, abort rate, age at first breeding and conception rates are input into the program. These data are typically evaluated quarterly to determine heifer needs, including semen type. With a program such as this, managers can work towards the recommended heifer non-completion rate of under 15% and cull rate of less than 35%. If these numbers drift outside of range, the program can assist with narrowing down what the potential issue(s) may be. Additionally, whenever a change is made to breeding protocols, considerations must be made for breeding technicians. Strategies must be easy and effective for AI technicians to follow, especially on busy days. Compliance and progress tracking are essential.

Sporer's insights, shared during the Heifer Academy webinar, emphasize the importance of strategic planning and data-driven decision-making in managing heifer populations. With heifer numbers at an all-time low and the value of heifers on the rise, farmers must adapt to new challenges and opportunities. By implementing effective strategies, farms can optimize their heifer numbers, improve first and subsequent lactation performance and invest in a farm’s future. Managing heifer inventory is not just about controlling numbers; it is about creating a balanced and sustainable operation that maximizes profitability and productivity. By focusing on strategic breeding, optimal herd composition and effective resource management, dairy farmers can build a robust foundation for the future of their operations.

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