By Jessica Buss

HEIFER REARING costs vary by more than 500/head in the results from 90 enterprises in Northern Ireland, but grazing and feeding management offer great potential to bring costs in line.

Figures from Greenmount Campus Dairy Benchmarking System show an average heifer cost 745 to rear in 2003/04, says James Morrison, dairying business technologist based at Greenmount, Belfast.

This figure does not include the value of the calf transferred in, rental value on owned land or family labour costs. The result was a loss of 46 for each heifer entering the herd, based on producers” own assessment of heifer value at calving, typically 700-750 (see table). Across every cow in the herd, averaging 90 cows, the herd replacement cost was 1.36p/litre or 90/cow.

But the top 25% of farms had a profit of 236/heifer. And the bottom 25% recorded a loss of 357 a heifer. “Top 25% units controlled their costs. A key factor in this was that their overhead costs were 113/heifer less than average,” says Mr Morrison.

 “But the bottom 25% had overhead costs 209/heifer higher than the average. This is based on overhead costs being divided equally across every hectare on the farm.

 “As these costs were proportionate across all livestock, this is a symptom of the financial health of the total business.”

 His biggest area of concern on bottom 25% units” overheads is higher depreciation costs and that they are carrying a lot of machinery. This may also have been related to too low a stocking rate or low farm output.

Part of the difference in total costs he attributes to age at calving. “There were a proportion of heifers carried over because they failed to calve at two years old.”

 The average benchmarked unit transferred in 36 heifer calves during the year and 30 heifers were sold or transferred out as herd replacements. This wastage means the 30 heifers leaving the enterprise carry the costs of rearing 36 during the year, he explains.

There are also differences in variable costs, with concentrate feeding accounting for the biggest variation. On average this was 861kg a heifer. Yet the top 25% of all farms fed 729kg a heifer, while the bottom 25% fed 1198kg.

Mr Morrison believes the bottom group need to focus on getting better liveweight gain from forage – both grazing and silage. “Heifers are often put on steep ground with poorer grass, then they need to be fed more concentrate as they don”t grow quickly enough.”

 He advises offering them good quality grazing to reduce use of concentrates. In winter they should be fed good quality silage rather than the second or third cut that is often offered.

Weight and age at calving were also important and he suggests a minimum target of 580kg for a heifer calving at two years of age.

Northern Ireland producers who wish to benchmark should contact their local dairy development adviser or visit www.ruralni.gov.uk

jessica.buss@rbi.co.uk