Like many farmers, dairy producers want to increase their profits after a sluggish economy while still producing the best milk possible. One way to increase profits is to improve dairy-herd management.
Between 2008 and 2010, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension agents looked at ways to improve dairy-herd management. During an informal survey, they also learned the top production concern of Virginia dairy producers was reproduction.
• There’s room for dairy improvement via better herd management.
• Virginia Extension can help you improve dairy profits.
• Improve cow reproduction and profits at the same time.
“We looked at reproduction and transition-cow management, which we think are the two most common limiting factors to dairy profitability,” says John Currin, an Extension specialist with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
Connecting with farmers
Currin made sure Virginia dairy agents set up team meetings where they spoke to farmers about the best ways to improve their cow reproduction programs and increase their profit. He also helped collect the transition cow beta-hydroxybutyrate, or BHB, data. According to Cornell University, BHB is a ketone that is produced by nonesterified fatty acids in the liver.
One of the Extension agents that participated in the dairy-herd program, funded by the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, was John Welsh of Rockingham County. After holding the farmer meetings and working with them for quite some time, he recommends dairy producers set a goal or purpose they wish to achieve when addressing dairy-herd management.
“The logical next step is to routinely analyze whether their actions are consistently moving them in that direction,” he says.
Of course, the performance of a dairy herd not only requires the cooperation of farmers and the evaluation of their cows but also the good health of each animal, as participants in the program learned. Cows must be free of disease or, for sure, dairy producers will lose money when it comes to reproduction. Naturally, this is still true today.
From the dairy-herd management program, Currin and his team of Extension dairy agents found the state’s dairy farms had a significant problem with subclinical ketosis. Cows suffer from this when their BHB concentrations are higher than 14 milligrams/liter. According to the USDA, subclinical ketosis is a severe metabolic disorder caused by the cow’s inability to keep its sugar levels in the blood where they should be, while producing lots of milk.
In addition, Currin says the management teams helped dairy producers they worked with to significantly lower the number of open days between calving and conception. The teams got through to the dairy farmers they worked with. Producers improved their management by better evaluating their herd’s reproductive performance.
What farmers can do
Improving dairy-herd management likely requires a commitment from farmers.
“While it may seem logical that all dairymen are striving to be more profitable, there are many different ways to achieve that goal,” Welsh says. “Cashing out and investing in the stock market would be in stark contrast to the goal of taking advantage of economies of scale and doubling the herd size of a particular operation.”
Helping dairy farmers become more profitable by improving dairy-herd management has been a priority by Virginia Extension, but Currin says dairy farmers “need to put more effort in getting semen in cows in order to get more cows pregnant, either through better heat detection or through synchronization. There is a tremendous opportunity on dairy farms to improve transition-cow management to improve overall farm profitability.”
In a report, Virginia Extension dairy scientist Raymond Nebel points out that if dairy farmers want to maximize their profits, they must maintain a high level of reproductive efficiency, not just an average level. The road to that efficiency requires that dairy farmers implement measures to improve their herd management day to day.
His first step down that road to improving a herd’s reproductive efficiency involves identifying key measurements and using them as guides. That way, they can develop or alter management policies and practices. He says dairy farmers should first look at their calving intervals, which should be 12.3 to 12.8 months. Nebel says anything beyond that, and farmers will begin to see significant declines in milk production.
To combat calving intervals extending beyond 12.8 months, he recommends dairy producers individually evaluate management policy and philosophy, heat detection, conception rate and herd health. Nebel says pinpointing where the reproductive program is weakest will guide them down the road to more profits if they make the right management decisions. To do that, they have to decrease the days open.
In his report, Nebel wrote that “managers who recognize the importance of good performance usually have an understanding of the losses in potential income that occur when calving intervals are too long, and when reproductive culling rates are too high.” He says good reproduction management begins during the dry period, so if cows have problems at calving they won’t resume calving cycles as fast as they should. Reducing days to first breeding helps, but to do that, dairy farmers must improve their management.
Profitability for dairy producers can increase if they better manage their cow reproduction. Unfortunately, profits can slip away when producers let down their guard and become lackluster with dairy-herd management. If that is the case, perhaps an evaluation of the herd for weak areas, such as disease and too many open days, is in order. Doing so effectively may require better communication among the producer, the Extension agent and the veterinarian.
Womack writes from Danville, Va.
This article published in the March, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.