Is Old Bessie’s Heifer Calf Really Replacement Quality?

Published on Wed, 03/21/2018 - 10:17am

 Is Old Bessie’s Heifer Calf Really Replacement Quality?

 By Bruce Derksen

 One question that the dairy industry as a whole is continually faced with is how to replace the open, old, or unproductive cows in their collective herds.  Replacement heifers are a large part of each dairy’s investment not only for a short period of time but for years to come.  They are not just a small insignificant puzzle piece of little to no value, but an integral part of building the cornerstone of your dairy’s foundation over the long haul.  Even if there are not a large amount of cows to be culled, many operations need to secure replacements if only to maintain the size of their producing herd or expand if the circumstances warrant it.  A serious question that needs asking of these owners should be, “Is old Bessie’s heifer calf really good enough to be a replacement on your dairy, or are you biased because Bessie has been around forever and you and the kids happened to be there when she calved last time and Bessie Junior became the family pet?”

There are a few options to dairy farms when it comes to replacement heifers.  Obviously, they can keep all or some of their own heifer calves- they could sell them with the contracted option of buying them back- or they could buy replacements outright from other producers.
Sometimes keeping your own heifers can be the easiest and least disruptive way to maintain or grow your herd.  Going this route guards against other producer’s health issues and keeps genetics and qualities that you know.  Maybe some poorer feeds can be better put to use that might otherwise be wasted.  
Contracting your own calves out to other farms with the first chance to buy them back can be an option although sometimes complicated and confusing.  It is not always optimal to hand over control of decisions about feed quality, weight gains and overall well- being, care and attention.

When considering how to preserve or grow your cow herd, reflect on these questions- are your cows perfect when it comes to health, condition, disposition, confirmation and proper udders?  Of course, no cow herd is perfect, so should maintaining the security of your closed herd health really be at the top of the priority list?  What about the genetics of your herd?  Could they not be improved?  Will keeping your own calves offer enough of a chance to grow your herd’s production or will it be the status quo?  If the bar is already set high, the status quo might be the right option.  Seriously consider if your cow herd is “good enough” or if it would be prudent to try to add better fertility, progeny growth, disposition, udder quality, milking volume and early birth dates.  Remember, adding replacement heifers to the herd is one of your best and only opportunities to improve it.
Obviously, the economics of keeping your own heifers versus buying good quality replacements from reputable producers needs to be pencilled out.  There may be more than one correct answer and they will depend on many factors that only you as a producer will be able to come to grips with.  Do you grow or buy most of your own feed and is it available?  Were the crops impacted by drought, insects or disease?  What are the calf and yearling markets now and what are they projected to be?  Use common sense, but don’t disregard the option of culling a mediocre herd more aggressively than you have done in the past, putting in the extra legwork and elbow grease to search out and find quality producers with good replacement options.
So when doing all the calculations to help you decide if buying replacements this year instead of only keeping your own heifers is a good idea, remember this is your family’s investment in the future.  Don’t just settle for the easy route.  If deep down you know old Bessie’s calf just isn’t going to improve your herd, say your good-byes and let her go down the road.  Don’t be afraid to make the slightly tougher choices.  Remember when you are building a cornerstone, you need the best material you can get.