Rearing quality dairy heifers is essential to maintain herds by replacing culled cows. Information on the key factors influencing the cost of rearing under different management systems is, however, limited and many farmers are unaware of their true costs. This study determined the cost of rearing heifers from birth to first calving in Great Britain including the cost of mortality, investigated the main factors influencing these costs across differing farming systems and estimated how long it took heifers to repay the cost of rearing on individual farms. Primary data on heifer management from birth to calving was collected through a survey of 101 dairy farms during 2013. Univariate followed by multivariable linear regression was used to analyse the influence of farm factors and key rearing events on costs. An Excel spreadsheet model was developed to determine the time it took for heifers to repay the rearing cost. The mean±SD ages at weaning, conception and calving were 62±13, 509±60 and 784±60 days. The mean total cost of rearing was £1819±387/heifer with a mean daily cost of £2.31±0.41. This included the opportunity cost of the heifer and the mean cost of mortality, which ranged from £103.49 to £146.19/surviving heifer. The multivariable model predicted an increase in mean cost of rearing of £2.87 for each extra day of age at first calving and a decrease in mean cost of £6.06 for each percentile increase in time spent at grass. The model also predicted a decrease in the mean cost of rearing in autumn and spring calving herds of £273.20 and £288.56, respectively, compared with that in all-year-round calving herds. Farms with herd sizes⩾100 had lower mean costs of between £301.75 and £407.83 compared with farms with <100 milking cows. The mean gross margin per heifer was £441.66±304.56 (range £367.63 to £1120.08), with 11 farms experiencing negative gross margins. Most farms repaid the cost of heifer rearing in the first two lactations (range 1 to 6 lactations) with a mean time from first calving until breaking even of 530±293 days. The results of the economic analysis suggest that management decisions on key reproduction events and grazing policy significantly influence the cost of rearing and the time it takes for heifers to start making a profit for the farm.