The pros and cons of dairy heifer contract rearing

Given the large potential expansion in the dairy herd over the next number of years, some dairy farmers are actively looking at contract heifer rearing as an option worth considering. 

This is according to Kevin Fitzgerald of Teagasc who said it is a viable option for dairy farmers particularly in cases where farm profit can be improved by carrying more cows, or where land and labour are limiting constraints.

“Similarly it is attractive to a growing number of drystock farmers as a means of improving cash flow throughout the year, and as a means of reducing the debt and risk profile of the drystock farm,” he noted.

According to Fitzgerald, of primary concern to dairy farmers considering this option is ensuring the liveweight targets are achieved during the contract period.

“A recent Moorepark study involving 1,400 heifers on 40 farms concluded that: heavier heifers at mating start date produce significantly more milk in their first lactation; weight at first calving also significantly affects second lactation milk yield; and liveweight and condition score of maiden heifers at the start of mating are more important in ensuring high fertility than the actual age that heifers are mated,” the Teagasc advisor explained.

However, despite it being an attractive option, there are risks presented by off-farm rearing of heifers, he said.

“For example animal disease “hotspots” may present a challenge, particularly at movement times. Also, for various reasons not all rearers will be able to achieve the growth targets required. It is recommended that animal weighing is conducted regularly to monitor progress over the rearing period.

He continued: “Finally, and perhaps most significantly there is a risk of conflict between the owner and rearer. This can be reduced somewhat by clearly defining the performance required and by completing and adhering to a written contract. A sample written contract is available from Teagasc.”

Teagasc estimate that the total economic cost of rearing a replacement to 24 months is €1,553 per head, incorporating a labour and land charge, and incorporating a cost for empty heifers.

It also estimates a daily cost of €1.18 per head over a 579 day period from the 1 May (in year of birth) to 1 December of the following year.

According to Fitzgerald, the average daily gain over this period must be in the order of 0.83kgs to achieve calving weight targets.

“Such a performance can only be achieved by the application of good management by the contract rearer,” he stressed.

He noted payment rates for contract rearing vary throughout the country and are often related to the specific agreement involved.

“For example some rearers incur costs of anthelminthic and heat detection costs, but may be paid at a higher rate. In general fees vary from the 90 cent to over €1 per heifer per day.

The Teagasc table below illustrates the key bodyweight targets for maiden heifers at key intervals. Breed influences are recognised within.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 08.50.32

Graph courtesy Teagasc 

According to Fitzgerald, heifer rearing is a standard in countries such as New Zealand particularly and the industry has evolved there to the extent that over 70 per cent of heifers are reared off-farm with a written contract in place.

“Clarity in agreement in advance of taking in heifers is a key success factor for both parties, in addition to the maintenance of a good working relationship.

He outlined possible key issues requiring clarity in advance:

  • Precise weight targets to be achieved and the level of performance required.
  • Projected dates of heifer arrival and removal from the rearer’s holding.
  • Breeding programme management. Stock bull to be used, or AI? Who pays for and performs the heat detection during the breeding season?
  • Who will pay for the provision of supplementary feeding if required?

Teagasc has produces a document outlining guidelines for the contract rearing of heifers.

“Also copies of written contracts are available detailing the issues involved and how they may be addressed formally,” Fitzgerald added.

“Finally, anyone considering entering into such an agreement would be well advised to speak to someone who has engaged in this practice previously to determine common pitfalls and see how they may be avoided.”

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