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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Calves and heifers > Strategies for raising dairy heifers with high feed costs

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Strategies for raising dairy heifers with high feed costs

Dr. Hugh Chester-Jones and Neil Broadwater

Just as is the case with the cost to produce milk, feed cost is the largest expense for raising dairy heifers. And, when considering the total cost for operating the dairy enterprise, raising dairy heifers is the second largest expense behind feed costs. Therefore, it is important to find ways to reduce feed costs and do it without affecting the growth and development of the dairy replacement. After all, getting that heifer into the milking string and producing milk is what it’s all about. Stretching out the months to first freshening period takes more feed and increases the feed costs.

Dr. Greg Bethard, Assistant Director for Dairy Technology, North Carolina State University, in a paper presented at 2009 National Dairy Calf and Heifer Association meeting in Tucson, AZ, suggests some management strategies that may provide some opportunity to reduce costs. They include:

Work with your nutritionist to make sure the rations are meeting maintenance and growth requirements. It is important to monitor heifer growth, performance and body condition. If animals are under stress, it changes the energy requirements. The animal’s environment itself greatly impacts feed costs. Based on all this information, rations may need to be adjusted accordingly.

If forages fed to the replacements are raised on the farm, that doesn’t mean they are inexpensive. The forage must still be economical from a nutrient standpoint. Forages must be harvested, stored and handled to minimize shrink and excessive waste. What is the cost to your dairy operation if feed is wasted and then you need to go and purchase feed ingredients to replace the feed lost?

Dr. Greg Bethard states, “part of controlling feed costs is procuring inexpensive feed ingredients.” However, he argues that one must look beyond just calculating the cost per unit of a particular nutrient to determine which feed is a “best buy,” as this ignores the replacement value of other feeds and the value of other nutrients in the feed. He provides this example. Suppose soybean meal ($350/ton, 48% CP as-fed basis, 960 lbs of protein/ton = $0.365/lb) and distillers grains ($205/ton, 26% CP as-fed basis, 520 lbs protein/ton = $0.394/lb) are options for a protein source. Using this approach, soybean meal is a better buy than distillers ($0.365/lb vs. $.0.394/lb crude protein). However, when comparing rations using the two protein sources, distillers grain is the cheaper ration (5 cents more per heifer per day), due to the cost of replacement feeds. See Table 1. The only accurate method to compare costs is to compare rations, not feeds.

Comparison of rations using soybean meal (SBM) or distillers grains (DDG)


Limit-feeding strategies have been researched at Penn State (Zanton and Heinrichs, 2007) and the University of Wisconsin (Hoffman et al., 2007).  These trials demonstrate that heifers perform similarly on less dry matter, resulting in improved feed efficiency.  The economics of this is dependent on feed costs but it comes down to being dependent on facilities, management and available feeds.  Dr. Bethard states that limit feeding approaches typically include:

  1. Feed a more nutrient-dense ration, and feed less of it. Elevate crude protein and energy levels to maintain the same daily intake. For example, if a group of heifers is eating 20 DM lbs of a 15% protein ration, they are consuming 3 lbs of protein (20 x 0.15). If their intakes were restricted to 18 DM lbs, then the new ration would need to be 16.6% protein (3 lb divided by 18).
  2. Feed less of the same ration. If successful, it suggests some nutrients were fed in excess.
  3. A combination of the two above. Maintaining energy density while increasing mineral and protein density to maintain daily intakes of protein and minerals.

The best way to estimate energy content is to look at the heifers. If they are too fat, they need less energy; if they are too thin or maybe not growing, they need more. Dr. Bethard suggests that limit-fed heifers extract more energy from a ration. Heifers fed less of the same ration with protein and minerals adjusted will typically maintain growth rates.

In summary, in order to reduce feed costs in raising replacement heifers, feeds must be purchased wisely, maintenance requirements must be minimized, forage shrinkage and waste must be limited, and the heifer operation managed to promote efficient gains to meet targeted growth and performance goals.


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