Three Midwestern dairy producers discussed the trial-and-error, cost analysis and strategic thinking that influenced their heifer-raising decisions at the recent Vita Plus Dairy Summit. Attendees heard from Dan Smits, Double S Dairy, Markesan, Wisconsin; Dr. Don Niles, Dairy Dreams LLC, Casco, Wisconsin; and Chad Carlson, Carlson Dairy LLP, Pennock, Minnesota.

Double S Dairy
For Double S Dairy, bringing another family member into the business provided the opportunity to bring their heifers back home. Dan and Steve Smits, owners of a 1,250-cow dairy, were joined by their brother, Mark, nine years ago, and Double S Heifer Operation was formed.

The move was one that made sense based on the dairy’s available land and labor pool. The farm’s 1,200 heifers are raised 18 miles from the site of the dairy, under the care of two full-time and one part-time employee. Barns have been built to house calves, and heifers are outwintered.

While some may wonder how well heifers grow and thrive under these conditions, Dan Smits assured, “Cold is not a problem.” Average daily gain ranges from 1.8 to 1.9 pounds, at a cost ranging from $1.45 to $1.68 per day depending on age. The ration varies depending on the year and season, but it may include forages such as rye, sudan grass, peas and oats, sweet corn silage, and stalklage. Heifers are bred at 15 months and calve in around 24.5 months.

“Being out in an open area, we grow a different type of heifer,” he added. “We don’t grow a strong, deep-ribbed heifer. That all comes after they come home.”


Dairy Dreams LLC
Earlier this year, Dairy Dreams LLC began managing its “replacement resource” more strategically by keeping heifers from birth to freshening at the site of the 2,800-cow dairy.

“Dairy Dreams’ heifer resource is valued at $2.25 million,” said Dr. Don Niles. “That’s worth managing with some different tactics.”

Those tactics include a combination of intensified genetic selection, breeding and culling – all done in accordance with a specific plan based on replacement needs.

The well-managed herd averages less than 1 percent death loss for calves. Coupled with a pregnancy rate of greater than 50 percent, the dairy generates a healthy pool of heifers – more, in fact, than what they need for herd replacements.

For this reason, Niles has initiated a combination of early culling and selective breeding. As early as 5 months of age, heifers with lower average daily gains are culled. As heifers reach breeding age, those requiring four or more services are sold as open heifers.

Based on the Dairy Dreams Index (DDINX), the dairy’s own genetic ranking index, lower-end heifers may be used as surrogates for embryos or bred for non-dairy offspring. The dairy-beef cross calves are sold at around 400 pounds. Every four months, the top DDINX calves are genomically tested, and a select few are flushed. Other top heifers are bred to sexed semen.

Niles has also initiated a more aggressive do not breed program for cows in order to move the genetically advanced replacements into the herd more quickly. His guidelines include not breeding any greater than third lactation cows, cows with a history of mastitis or high somatic cell count, or those that do not meet the baseline of the DDINX.

Carlson Dairy LLP
At Carlson Dairy LLP, expanding the milking herd to its present size of 1,500 cows meant less room for raising heifers at home. Chad Carlson recalled the initial growing pains of dealing with outsourcing his heifers.

“The first couple of raisers were a train wreck,” he said, pointing a finger to poor communication as the culprit. “I should have been more proactive.”

These days, however, Carlson couldn’t be more pleased with his heifer grower, who also happens to be his brother-in-law.

“I don’t know that I could find anyone to take better care than what he is doing,” he stated.

At four months of age, heifers head 200 miles southeast to Rochester. An aggressive growth program maintains average daily gains between 1.8 and 2 pounds per day, setting up heifers to hit a height requirement of 51 inches and heart girth of 65 inches to be eligible for breeding at around 13 months.

Costs are accounted for on a dollar-per-day basis.

“We pay for all veterinary expenses – vaccines, Lutalyse shots, vet checks – we cover any of the out-of-pocket,” Carlson added.

At the site of the dairy, automated calf feeders are being installed to increase the capacity for heifers. The available pastureland at the heifer raiser provides room for more animals in the summer months, and there may be future opportunity to expand facilities as well.

“These replacements are the future of your herd,” he emphasized. “Anything you miss today on a heifer is a missed opportunity in the future.” PD

View a Vita Plus video summarizing the discussion.


Peggy Coffeen
PD Staff

Check out a slideshow featuring various activities at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit.

You can also read more about certain Vita Plus Dairy Summit events on our website:

Other aspects of the summit are covered on the Vita Plus website.