Every dairyman and dairywoman should be asking themselves that very question. With milk prices below the cost of production for most of us, it’s challenging to justify the number of calves and heifers found on our farms. After all, until those animals reach milking strings, each one only contributes to the expense side of the ledger.
Many of us pride ourselves on taking diligent care of newborn calves. However, with these improved calf-raising systems and the addition of sexed semen, replacement numbers have been climbing for some time as shown in the figure. This January, 4.8 million dairy replacements over 500 pounds were housed on farms across the country. That total represents the second-largest inventory since 1962, according to USDA’s Cattle publication. While that total is troubling for the industry as a whole, there is a short-term glimmer of hope as there was a slight reduction in the number of heifers expected to calve as shown in the figure and that could slow near-term milk production.
While we cannot do much individually about the national dairy herd, each of us can evaluate our own situations. Genomic testing, and even pedigree data, can pinpoint the heifers that will likely make the lowest contribution to our herds. Consider culling those early in life to reduce overhead if the farm’s replacement pipeline is ample. Likewise, black-haired calves resulting from a beef-breed cross have been fetching far more at auction barns than their dairy cousins. By using some beef semen on the lower end of your herd, you can boost your farm’s near-term revenue and reduce long-term expense.
That’s not all. As replacement inventories climb and milk prices continue their current swoon, replacement values likely will flounder, reducing balance sheets and income potential when selling those replacements. That definitely was the case in 2009 and 2012 when balance sheets also struggled.