10 things dairy farmers should know before deciding to contract rear heifer calves

Dutch cow with newborn calf in the meadow, the Netherlands
Dutch cow with newborn calf in the meadow, the Netherlands
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

With calving season only a matter of weeks away, some farmers many be considering whether they should contract rear their heifer calves down the line. Here's some things to consider before deciding whether to send them to be contract rearer or not:

Set to increase

With the abolition of quotas since 2015 the rate of contract rearing is set to increase as further emphasis is placed on sustainable dairy practices.

As the national herd starts to increase pressure placed on land resources means farmers are becoming more interested in collaborative farming approaches such as contract rearing.

According to the National Farm Survey, in 2015  5pc of specialist dairy farmers took part in contract rearing.

Labour efficient

Contract rearing could allow dairy farmers more free time and flexibility to focus purely on dairying as they do not have to worry about looking after their heifers. This frees up labour time.


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Improved performance and infrastructure

Where accommodation and cubicle space is limited on farm, hiring out your heifers to be contract reared would be a practical solution to freeing up space on farm and reducing housing pressure.

It also could suit farmers where heifers are failing to achieve top performance. Contract rearers will be able to rear them in the right environment and provide for their needs which should in turn improve their performance and health.

Liveweight targets

Achieving target bodyweights is an integral part of heifer rearing systems. Every heifer rearing programme needs to have a target liveweight and specified age at first calving.

Previous research indicates that heifers should be mated at 60pc mature liveweight and should calve at 90pc of their mature liveweight.

Recommended mature liveweights do vary between breeds and crossbreeds which should be considered.

Improved Income and cashflow for rearers

It could provide a steady income and cashflow for rearers and the business risks associated with drystock production are also reduced.

It is potentially more profitable than the contract rearer’s current enterprise as they are guaranteed a monthly income and the demands of buying and selling are reduced or in some cases eliminated for them altogether.

Opportunities for retired dairy farmers

Heifer rearing offers an opportunity for retired dairy farmers to continue their involvement in the dairy industry. They can offer lifelong knowledge and experience without the same intensive labour requirements.

Disease challenges

Contract rearing involves moving heifer calves from their farm of origin to an external holding to be reared for an agreed fee. By its nature moving animals from one farm to another poses biosecurity challenges as it increases the risk of diseases.

Heifers in some instances from multiple source farms may be co-grazed and housed together which could lead to the transmission of infectious agents and disease breakdown.

With animals on two farms, the risk of either group contracting diseases such as TB, Leptospirosis etc. is higher. Ideally engaging in a contract with single contract rearing should be aimed for.

Traits of heifers being contract reared

Heifers that are contract reared in Ireland tend to originate from larger than average herds. They are usually sent for rearing between two and four months of age to a contract rearer within the same county.

A recent Teagasc study on contract rearing showed that 75pc of heifers were sent to contract rearers in the same county .They then tend to return from contract rearing between 18 and 21 months.


A replacement heifer calving at 24 months of age is equivalent to one livestock unit (LU). Most replacement heifers spend only part of the 24-month rearing period on the rearer’s farm.

Often calves are moved to the contract rearer’s farm on the first of May and return home in early December of the followingyear. Calculating the LU equivalent for the period that the heifer is on the rearer’s farm is outlined in Table 3.

The Moorepark costings model includes a land opportunity cost of €450 per hectare forthe full year. The model also includes a charge of €149 per LU for the farmer’s own labourfor rearing the heifer from birth to calving at 24 months of age.

Teagasc Cost Calculator is a handy guide that should be referred to when considering contract rearing.

Contracts aren't foolproof but are necessary

Formal written contracts for rearing replacement heifers have been in place in New Zealand for over 20 years. Approximately 70pc of heifers are grazed on a contract rearer’s farm with a written contract in place.

Farmer experience with replacement heifer contracts is that they are not foolproof.

However contracts allow for some of the day to day issues that will arise to be identified, discussed and agreed upon before the heifers arrive on the contract rearer’s farm.

Concerns such as start day of contract, ownership of animals and whether the contract is written or verbal should be considered.

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