April 7, 2005 | By: Terri McLean

Farmers looking for a viable alternative to tobacco production might want to take the lead from hundreds of others in the state who are trying their hand at a fast-growing industry: raising dairy heifers.

“It’s a good industry and it’s a stable industry,” said Bill Crist, Extension dairy specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. 

Raising dairy heifers is an important component of the dairy industry, which annually brings in about $300 million in Kentucky. The heifers are needed to replace the 30 to 40 percent of cows that leave dairy farms each year because of reproductive and other problems. 

In the past, most dairy farmers raised their own replacement heifers. But because of the time and attention it takes away from the primary focus of producing milk – not to mention the expense – many dairy farmers have begun buying heifers from heifer producers or contracting others to raise their heifers for them.

“Generally, in Kentucky on a lot of dairy farms there’s usually one period of time when for some reason the replacement heifer doesn’t get the attention it needs,” he explained. “So there will be a time when the heifer doesn’t grow like it should.”

Farmers who specialize in raising dairy heifers, on the other hand, make it their business to provide the heifers with the care and attention necessary for them to grow strong and become quality replacements. 

“A lot of heifers will come in (to heifer growers) after they’ve been weaned, usually about 2 months of age. Then they’ll go back when they’re about a month away from calving,” Crist said.

Raising dairy heifers is a relatively new industry in Kentucky that is still faced with challenges, including a shortage of heifers.

“It’s hard to find new heifers because it is a good opportunity,” said Eunice Schlappi, dairy marketing specialist with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and a major proponent of this burgeoning industry. But, she said, “we have several groups working to get the heifers in here.”

Most heifers being raised by growers in Kentucky come from large out-of-state dairies, including one of the region’s largest operations, a dairy in Indiana that has 12,000 cows. 

“We’re starting to build up the trust of these dairies as far as our ability to raise heifers,” Crist said. “So I think it will probably become easier to get heifers to raise.”

Biosecurity also is a concern, Crist said, because many dairy producers fear that heifers raised on other farms may expose their herd to diseases. Precautions such as isolating the heifers for a time after they’re returned to the dairy farm and thoroughly cleaning trucks and trailers used to haul the heifers are important steps to ease those fears, he said.

Although milk production may give farmers a better return on their money than raising dairy heifers, Crist said many farmers choose the latter because raising heifers requires lower capital costs, less intense management and less risk. Plus, he added, “you generally know how much you’re going to be getting to raise those heifers.”

While some farmers raise dairy heifers for resale, most raise them on a contract basis. The contracts vary tremendously but often they will call for a daily amount – currently about $1.50 – be paid to the heifer grower while the heifer is in his possession.

“It’s important to make sure everything’s in writing,” Crist advised.

Both Crist and Schlappi are big believers in the viability of raising dairy heifers in Kentucky, and they’ve partnered on several occasions to promote the industry and educate farmers about the opportunities. They’ve taken growers on trips to heifer-raising farms in other states and sponsored heifer field days, among other things.

“It’s a good option for farmers,” Crist said.
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Writer: Terri McLean, 859-257-4736 ext. 276
Sources: Bill Crist, 859-257-7543, Eunice Schlappi, 502-564-4896 ext. 222


Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Bill Crist 859-257-7543
Eunice Schlappi 502-564-4896