Comparing costs of raising replacement heifers

Calf feeder

In the ongoing quest to control costs, the costs of raising heifers of all ages are subject to scrutiny.

The challenge: what is the “right” cost? Is there a “right” cost? How do differences between feeding and management systems play into costs?

It is generally accepted that the daily cost of feeding and raising a calf from birth to weaning is the highest, due to feeding milk, and the associated labor and management costs which decline as the animal matures. But what are real and reasonable numbers?

Real world numbers

Fortunately for us, Ryan Sterry, Matt Akins, and Mark Hagedorn along with about 20 of their University of Wisconsin-Extension and UW Madison colleagues have dedicated a tremendous amount of time over the last 10 years surveying Wisconsin dairy farmers and heifer growers to nail down some of these numbers.

This year, they published the results of their 2017 survey, Economic Costs and Labor Efficiencies Associated with Raising Dairy Calves for Operations Using Individual or Automated Feeding.

This survey included 11 farms that fed calves individually. The average number of calves fed per year was 185, ranging from 23 to 620 calves fed per year.

Another 15 survey farms used automatic feeders to feed milk to baby calves. The average number of calves raised per year averaged 486, ranging from 77 to 2,466 calves.

What did they find?

Not surprisingly, the cost of feeding milk was usually higher for automated systems than for individual-fed calves. Calves utilize milk more efficiently when they can eat more, smaller meals throughout the day, and automated feeders deliver multiple milk meals much more willingly than a person.

On average, calves fed in an automatic system ate 134 pounds of milk replacer (MR) powder or 921 pounds of whole milk. Hand-fed calves averaged 80 pounds of MR powder or 855 pounds of whole milk. The full article does a nice job describing the variation between farms in both systems.

Labor costs

Automation saved hired labor dollars. Paid labor averaged $64 per calf for automated systems compared to $104 per calf on farms feeding calves individually.

Even though time is needed to clean and maintain automated equipment, all of the individual bucket, bottle, and nipple prep and cleaning time is eliminated.

Labor and management

Total paid and unpaid labor and management averaged $172 (12.53 hours) for individually fed calves, versus $103 (7.4 hours) for calves reared in an automated system. While less labor was used for the milk-feeding task, health and welfare management is equally important in both systems.

Bottom line

On average, total direct and overhead costs for individually-fed calves was $363 per calf. Add in a charge for unpaid labor and management, and total cost increases to $419. For the calves raised with automatic feeders, total direct and overhead expenses averaged $401 — not surprising with the cost of equipment and housing for these relatively new operations.

The gap narrows considerably when we add in a charge for unpaid labor and management, with individually reared calves averaging a total cost of $419 per head compared to $431 for auto-feeder calves.

Compare your costs

Print a copy of the Wisconsin article and look at the cash costs. Across management systems, cash costs ranged from a low of $149 to a high of $508 per calf from birth to post-weaning pen move.

Being the lowest-cost calf raiser is not necessarily a good thing. A good goal is to be a best-cost producer with healthy, productive heifers that will calve at or before 24 months of age ready to make milk. These numbers will help you find that best cost for your farm.

Full results

Find all of the University of Wisconsin calf and heifer survey results in a very readable format at


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