Raising Replacement Heifers — What Does It Cost?
Understanding the cost of developing replacement heifers is crucial for informed decision-making. The most significant factor in heifer development cost is the opportunity cost of forgoing revenue from selling calves at weaning. Each heifer kept for the breeding herd is one less calf to sell in the fall – the cost of the opportunity for fall revenue that’s being given up.
With cattle prices currently at record highs, the opportunity cost is at its peak. Producers should consider the long-term economic implications of raising replacement heifers and remain aware of potential market volatility throughout the heifer’s lifespan.
Are you looking for a simple tool to calculate the cost of developing replacement heifers? We’ve got you covered! The new BCRC Replacement Heifer Calculator is a decision-making tool adapted from a calculator originally developed by the Western Beef Development Centre.
Replacement Heifer Calculator
The Replacement Heifer Calculator estimates the costs of developing a replacement heifer from weaning, through breeding to preg-checking. The calculator provides estimates of total development costs and a break-even selling price for bred heifers when you input relevant information such as weaning date, cattle prices, expected breeding performance, feed and nutrition costs, veterinary expenses and other associated costs.
Key cost components considered in the calculator include:
- Opportunity cost (forgoing shorter-term revenue from the animals)
- Feed and bedding costs
- Grazing cost
- Breeding cost
- Other expenses
- Health and veterinary expenses
- Capital cost
- Death loss
The total cost is adjusted by conception rate and open heifer sales. Bred heifers will bear the cost of developing the opens, while the cost to develop bred heifers will be decreased by the expected revenues from selling the open heifers.
Example: 2022-born heifers
For instance, let’s consider an example with 2022-born heifers. Suppose there were 50 potential replacement heifers selected at weaning on November 1, 2022, with an average weaning weight of 550 pounds. The opportunity cost of keeping these heifers was $1,238/head, based on an average heifer calf price of $2.25/lb in Alberta.
After weaning, the heifers go on feed for 212 days (November 1 to June 1). Assuming these heifers were fed 18 pounds of hay and 3 pounds of grain per day with hay price at 8 cents per pound ($176/tonne) and grain at 14 cents per pound ($309/tonne), winter feed cost is at $394/head. Adding the cost of bedding at $15/head (500 lbs at 3 cents per pound), and year-round minerals at $30/head, total feed and bedding cost adds up to at $439/head.
Assume pasture turn-out date will be on June 1, 2023. The heifers will be exposed to natural breeding with bulls during the grazing season and preg-checked on October 15. The grazing period from June 1 to October 15 is 136 days, with grazing cost projected at $1/head/day for a total of $136/head. The cost of natural breeding is based on breeding bull price ($5000/head), number of heifers serviced per year (20 head), number of years used (4 years), annual bull cost ($500/head), semen test and vaccinations ($125/head), less bull salvage value ($2,280/head). The estimated breeding cost is $65/head.
Other expenses to be considered are veterinary and medicine costs of $15/head for vaccines, preg-checking and other medical expenses; yardage at $191/head; capital cost at $35/head (3% interest rate for weaned calf value for the wean-to-preg-check period), and cost of a 2% death loss at $25/head. The total cost in this example amounts to $2,144 per heifer being developed. Adjusting for a 10% open rate, the cost for each bred heifer would be $2,382 assuming bred heifers will bear the cost of developing the opens. If open heifers are sold after preg-checking, bred heifer development cost is partially offset by revenue from open heifer sales. With a projected revenue of $2,280 per open heifer ($2.40/lb x 950 lb), the cost is reduced to $2,129 per bred heifer developed.
Remember, the example above is intended to demonstrate the calculation steps. Make sure to adapt the calculations to your operation and use your own on-farm numbers.
What does it mean?
When choosing whether to retain or purchase replacement heifers, understanding the development costs is crucial. In the example given, opportunity and feed costs make up close to 80% of the total expenses. These factors, particularly current calf prices and feed costs, greatly influence the feasibility of raising replacement heifers. Since calf prices and feed costs fluctuate annually and within seasons, closely monitoring these costs becomes vital, as it significantly impacts the level of investment required.
Record-high calf price equals record-high opportunity cost
Keep in mind that the example above is based on the 2022 calf crops. Cattle prices have surged significantly since then to new record highs. In May 2023, heifer calf prices surpassed $3/lb, up 52% year-over-year. If a producer’s projected heifer calf price is at $2.80/lb in the fall, the opportunity cost of retaining the 2023-born heifers would rise to $1,540/head. This leads to an estimated cost of $2,482/bred heifer, while keeping other variables steady, including feed and bedding at $439, grazing at $136, breeding fees at $65, other costs at $281, and adjusting for opens.
Record-high calf prices now do not equal record-high returns in the future
Raising replacement heifers is a substantial financial commitment with long-term profitability implications. The cost of development is only one side of the equation; returns over the heifer’s lifespan must also be considered.
If a heifer is weaned in the fall of 2023, it typically takes two years until she produces her first calf which would be expected in the spring of 2025. Considering the current record-high prices, producers should exercise caution due to potential downside risks in the future.
Assuming the average price during the heifer’s lifespan is $2.77/lb for 550 lb calves (a 25% increase from the 2014-2022 Alberta steer and heifer average of $2.21/lb), with an annual cow cost of $1,000/cow, it would require seven consecutive productive years to recover the initial development cost of $2,482 for this heifer.
If average calf prices increase by another 10% to $2.99/lb, the pay-back period is estimated at six years for the 2023-born heifers.
However, if average calf prices only increase 15% from the 2014-2022 levels to $2.54/lb, the pay-back period increases to eight years.
Adjusting the cost assumption for a lower-cost operation so that annual cow cost is at $800/head and cattle prices still increase by 25% from the 2014-2022 levels, the pay-back period is estimated at five years.
Estimate pay-back period with Iowa University’s Calculator: Net Present Value of Beef Replacement Females
|Scenario 1||Scenario 2||Scenario 3||Scenario 4|
|Development Cost ($/bred heifer)||2,482||2,482||2,482||2,482|
|Avg Calf Prices ($/lb)||2.77||2.99||2.54||2.77|
|Annual Cost per Cow ($/cow)||1,000||1,000||1,000||1,000|
|Pay-back Period |
(# of years)
In addition to raising replacement heifers, producers should be open to alternative options such as purchasing breeding heifers, cows or cow-calf pairs.
The decision involves more than just economic factors; it also takes into account land, labor and capital capacity, as well as feed, pasture, facility availability, biosecurity and disease risks. Long-term goals for genetics and cattle performance should also be carefully considered.
- Heifer Development (BCRC topic page)
- Economics Of Raising or Buying Heifers for Beef Cow Replacement (BCRC post)
- Managing Replacement Heifers (BCRC webinar)
- Economics of Replacement Heifers (Canfax Research Services factsheet)
- What Goes into Calculating Yardage? (South Dakota State University Extension article)
- The Economics of Replacement Heifers with Kathy Larson (The Beef Cattle Health and Nutrition Podcast)
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