Five Keys To A Strong Relationship With Your Calf Grower


Your heifers are the future of your herd. If you’re having someone else raise them, you’re putting a critically important part of your future in their hands. Heifer raising also carries considerable expense that can only be recouped when that heifer enters the milking string and stays well into the second lactation. 

For these reasons, and more, you need to establish an open, honest relationship with your grower. Whether you are considering having your heifers grown elsewhere, or you are a seasoned veteran, here are a few strategies to consider:

1. Start with trust. “It will be hard for a lot of dairymen who have always raised their own heifers to trust a heifer grower,” says T.J. McClure of Circle Heifer Development, Garden City, Kan., an operation that raises about 10,000 heifers from six months to springing. “So the main thing we have to do is trust each other.”

Producers have to have faith in their growers that their heifers will be well cared for. That takes a considerable amount of trust, says Mike Halderman of Buckeye Heifer Resources in Camden, Ohio. He works with 10 dairies and has about 5,000 head of inventory at various grower locations in Ohio. 

“The true testament for most clients is what the heifer looks like when she comes off the truck at the dairy, ready to have her first calf and go to work,” he says. “So there’s a lot of trust. We’ve worked with some of our dairies for a very long time, so we trust each other.’

Likewise, the grower has to trust that the producer does a good job raising calves. 

2. Get out and see the grower. That’s true whether you have an established contract with a grower, or you are exploring your options for a new relationship. 

“I can tell you all day long about what we do and how we raise heifers, but there’s no replacement for actually going out and not just seeing the facility or what animals look like, but actually shaking the hand of the people that are going to be doing the work,” Halderman says. “It’s still a people business and you need to meet those people.” 

3. Have open communication. In any relationship, working with another person or partner has a much higher likelihood of success if the two parties share open and honest communication. Find out what works best for you and your potential partner.

“Every dairy is different. For some dairies, I’ll talk to them daily, sometimes more than daily,” says Jamie Franken of City View Farms, Sutherland, Iowa, where about 14,000 heifers are raised. They’re expanding to 20,000 by the end of summer to match client expansion. “Some dairies you rarely talk to them maybe once a week to line up trucking. So it varies a lot based on what their needs are.” DairyComp 305 is used to maintain records on each animal, and Franken says data is synched each night so clients can have a clear picture of what is going on with their animals. 

In more difficult economic times, the frequency of communication has gone up. 

“The communication with some of our dairies has increased,” McClure says. There is a need for more information, and he says that’s due to the economics and what their banks are asking for. “So there are some that are talking to us on a daily or weekly basis.”

4. Realize that when one suffers, all suffer. When milk prices are low, as they have been for the last three-plus years, it affects everyone in the industry, including heifer growers.

“Probably two years ago we did lower our contract prices based on our budgets. We did that as a token to our dairies,” Halderman says. “We watch our receivables closer. We feel very lucky and blessed that we work with good people. We look at our business as a partnership, a give and take on both sides. Money still flows, it just flows slower, but it still flows.”

With regard to cash flow, McClure says some dairies are looking to get heifers back earlier to not only reduce raising costs but get them into the milking string sooner. 

“We’re breeding animals 20 to 30 days earlier than we were two years ago,” he says. “Two years ago they wanted a nice big framed animal. Now they’re ready to settle for a nice big animal that’s pregnant 30 days earlier. It’s just the economic times we’re facing.”

5. Remember, this is a business relationship. As in any partnership, things happen that may make it necessary for the relationship to end. Sometimes you can see it coming and stop the relationship from happening. 

Aligning management philosophies is important, Franken says. For example, his focus is on creating a low-cost, efficient ration that maintains adequate growth and development. “If you’re a dairyman that thinks that heifers need alfalfa hay and calf grain and you’re not willing to compromise, if you come to my place we’re not going to get along,” he says. “You have to make sure you understand and feel comfortable with whoever you want to do business with.”

In the end, you have to also know when it’s time for the relationship to end. 

“It’s a partnership,” Halderman says. “You’re not meant to work with everybody, and everybody is not meant to work with you. Unfortunately sometimes you don’t figure that out until there’s a problem. When there is a problem, we resolve them together. It has to be give and take.”

Tags: Business Relations