It is well known the biggest cost to you as dairy farmers is your heifer rearing. It will take 2+ years before you start to see any returns from an animal, and within that time, as most of you will have experienced at some point, a lot can go wrong!

But how well do we know our costs associated with heifer rearing? What KPI’s do we look at? What data are we looking at as an indicator of heifer rearing efficiency? And more specifically, what is it on YOUR farm?

Following a talk organised by AHDB with guest speaker Dr. Ginny Sherwin I wanted to highlight some practical KPI’s and economics that you can implement with the help of your vet on farm.

It is likely most of you will already be aware of some common KPI’s with regards to heifer performance:

  • Age of 1st calving (target should be 22-24 months)
  • % of heifers that re-calve (target 90%)
  • % of heifer yield compared to milking cow yield (target over 80%)

If you don’t have these to hand, your vet can find all this very easily from milk recording data!

An example below is where some of the data is from a DigiFarm report:

These are all excellent starting points when looking at heifer performance.

Is your age at 1st calving within the target window? If not, is that due to poor growth rates and heifers not being ≥55% of mature body weight by 13/14 months? Or is that due to poor fertility?

Once you distinguish the difference you can then focus efforts here.

Secondly, how many heifers in milk go on to re-calve? If this is less than 90%, where are we losing them? Is it due to post-partum disease or injury, or the fact that they go lame and cannot get back in calf? Look back at the reasons these animals have left the herd, it’s key to pick up trends.

Thirdly, what % yield are the heifers contributing compared to your L2+ cows? If this is below 80%, start by having a look at the environment. It’s a large change for a heifer to go from her rearing group to dry cow group, calving then moving into a miking herd. The key here is to minimise stress as much as possible, try to transition them with the same animals. Is there enough space for heifers to escape dominant cows and access feed once in the miking herd?

These three KPI’s that everyone who milk records will have easy access to, can give you a great starting point to identify areas of improvement for your heifer performance.

However, more insightful KPI’s that address overall heifer performance would be:

Number of heifers born compared to number of heifers that reach 1st calving:

  • This will help you identify how many potential replacement heifers you lose before they start to milk. Separate these into reasons, such as illness (scour, pneumonia) or fertility.
  • Simply look back through your calving book, how many heifer replacements were born over a set period of time. How many of those reached 1st lactation. What % did not make it?

Number of heifers that calve that go on to Lactation 3:

  • 3rd Lactation is the first full profitable lactation, explained below!

Dairy heifer economics

It is important to know how much your heifer rearing is costing you and when she starts to earn money for herself.

Follow this example below for an estimate for your farm:

The cost of rearing a dairy heifer to the point of calving, on an average UK, 250 cow dairy farm is approximately £2k. Combine this with feeding costs of £2.50 a day for a 360 day lactation works out around £900. These numbers may vary for your farms, e.g. variation in rearing costs, feed costs and lactation length but these are an average.

Using the above farms data, 87% of heifers re-calve. In this herd there were 80 heifers. Therefore, 70 heifers re-calved, meaning 10 were either lost or culled.

10 x (-£590) = (-£5900) debt to be carried by the remaining 70 heifers at £85 per animal. So in total, each individual enters their second lactation (-£675) in debt.
This is assuming no issues such as lameness which costs approximately £300 per case for example. You can see how costs rack up!

For this example farm, assuming feed costs for 2nd lactation are £2.90 per day and average of 33 litres of milk per day, still at 33ppl. Cows yield approx.10,000 litres.

Averaging 33 litres a day it would take each animal 156 days of their second lactation to break even with costs with no complications.

Therefore, we can assume with the addition of any unexpected early culls before completed lactation, cases of mastitis or lameness, in the average herd it would be towards the end of second lactation when most farms break even from heifer rearing.

The key take home is to have a look at your farm data with your vet. A good starting point is how many heifers reach the 3rd lactation as this is the single biggest KPI for your heifer rearing economic performance. The more cows that you have that reach their 3rd and most profitable lactation the better your farm will perform!