Coping with high feed costs is not just a challenge in the lactating herd, but in the heifer pen as well. Unfortunately, cutting corners on heifer rations today could be merely a cost-shifting versus cost-saving strategy. When heifers don’t reach the lactating herd efficiently and/or can’t perform when they get there, the dairy may pay an even higher price.
Dairy nutritionist Tyler Colburn is co-owner of Alpha Dairy Consulting, which serves dairies, calf ranches and heifer ranches in California’s central valley, from Fresno to Bakersfield. He has seen first-hand how heifer feeding decisions made in a tough dairy economy eventually proved burdensome to lactating herds.
“It’s easy to reduce ration cost per hundredweight in the short term, but the results six to 10 months later can be disastrous,” he shares. “When we get to that point, it’s an extremely hard problem to fix, and some of those heifers simply don’t make it as replacements.”
10 things to avoid
Some of the most common feeding errors that can compromise long-term replacement heifer performance include:
1. FEEDING FOR COST VERSUS PERFORMANCE – Contract heifer raiser Vance Kells of Circle Bar Heifer Ranch LLC,
Satanta, Kan., says feeding high-quality rations can be a tough sell in challenging times. Just like his dairy clients, Kells used to be able to feed $3/bushel corn and $25/ton corn silage, versus $7 corn and $65 silage today. “As recently as four years ago, I could feed heifers from five months to 220-days-pregnant springers for about $1 a day actual feed costs,” says Kells. “Today, that figure is about $2.20 a day.”
“It’s hard to swallow the fact that it may cost $400 to $700 more per head to raise a heifer compared to current sale barn prices,” he says. “But it’s important to look at every heifer as an investment, and not just a warm body in the herd. By raising heifers right, dairies can reap longer-term rewards in terms of genetic progress, breeding efficiency, disease protection and breeding to calving-ease bulls.”
2. FEEDING TOO LITTLE PROTEIN – Protein is the most expensive component of a heifer TMR. Colburn says feeding too little of it, or choosing cheaper sources that make metabolizable protein less available, will likely lead to under-sized heifers that are not ready to breed at desired age targets. This can be the start of a downward financial spiral, because those heifers will need to be on feed longer before they become productive members of the milking string. “They also will need to make more milk when they get there to offset those additional days on feed and, in most cases, they are the least likely animals to be able to do that,” he says.