Dairy Sense: Unlocking Added Potential

The transition period, early lactation, and breeding age heifers are the keys to unlocking added potential for milk income.
Dairy Sense: Unlocking Added Potential - Articles


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January 2019

Production perspective:

As 2018 ends and 2019 begins, there does not appear to be much difference in what the dairy markets will provide. Starting a fifth year of less than sustainable margins means making sure cows are achieving peak performance. The priority is attaining adequate milk income, which with the current projected milk prices might provide some positive cash flow. For many operations that means greater than $13.50 per cow milk income. A two- to five-pound increase of milk on average may be all that is needed to meet this goal. To optimize production, the transition period, early lactation, and breeding age heifers are the keys to unlocking added potential.

The transition period (pre and post calving) sets the stage for how successful the cow will be in her lactation. Maintaining proper body condition and dry matter intakes are the critical elements to cows freshening with minimal problems. Metabolic issues typically occur when cows freshen at the extremes for body condition, either too thin or too fat. On the five-point scale, an ideal body condition score for the fresh cow is 3.25. Both feeding management and nutrition are critical to ensure intakes and nutrients are maintained during this stressful period. A minimum of 30 inches of bunk space is recommended for the pre-fresh cow. Ration particle size is important, especially when straw or hay is fed at high inclusion levels. If sorting occurs, then all animals are not receiving the ration formulated by the nutritionist. There are many different dietary approaches when it comes to transition cows, and their success relies on how well the formulated ration is implemented. They all can either be successful or disastrous depending on how well feeding management is executed.

Early lactation is a critical time point not only for milk production but also reproduction. Cow comfort, feeding management, and the proper balance of energy and protein are important to meeting the many nutrient demands during this time. Some benchmarks for the herd are peak milk greater than 95 pounds, minimum production on 2 times per day milking of 75 pounds (3 times should be greater than 85 pounds), and milk components greater than 5.5 pounds. To keep days in milk in the ideal range of 175 to 180, days to first service should be less than 80 and average days open to conception should be around 120. A body condition score of 2.75 to 3.0 is considered ideal during early lactation.

The third key area to examine is the breeding age heifer. This group is the future of the herd and to meet the goal of average age to first calving of 22 to 24 months, heifers must be the ideal weight and height to conceive. Extremes in body condition in heifers at 13 to 15 months of age can impact conception. For heifers to peak at 80 pounds they need the stature and weight to maintain performance during their first lactation. These animals are still growing while producing, and if they are short and fat or tall and skinny animal performance will be challenged.

It is easy to take short cuts when income is not adequate. With the dairy cow, there is always a ripple effect. It is not just about milk production; other aspects of the biological unit are impacted and can result in bigger problems down the road. Currently, some herds are struggling with low milk production because of short cuts taken with nutrition; reproduction has been compromised resulting in very long days in milk, greater than 220 days in some cases. At this point there is very little that can be done to make improvements and now the farm is several months away from having production come back. If the goal is to stay in dairying, make sure the decisions made will not cause irreparable damage to the bottom line.

Action plan for increasing milk production.

Goal – Determine the monthly milk income needed to achieve a positive cash flow.

  • Step 1: Utilize Penn State Extension’s Excel Cash Flow Spreadsheet to determine the farm’s breakeven IOFC.
  • Step 2: Determine the amount of milk needed based on the current milk price to achieve a surplus/cow.
  • Step 3: Utilizing the DHIA 202 sheet, evaluate herd performance based on days in milk (0 to 40 days and 41 to 100 days), average days in milk, pregnancy rate, and age at first calving. If benchmarks are not being met, investigate protocols to determine the bottleneck.
  • Step 4: Work with an advisory team and discuss strategies for correcting problems limiting the milk production needed to cash flow.

Economic perspective:

Monitoring must include an economic component to determine if a management strategy is working or not. For the lactating cows income over feed costs is a good way to check that feed costs are in line for the level of milk production. Starting with July 2014’s milk price, income over feed costs was calculated using average intake and production for the last six years from the Penn State dairy herd. The ration contained 63% forage consisting of corn silage, haylage and hay. The concentrate portion included corn grain, candy meal, sugar, canola meal, roasted soybeans, Optigen® and a mineral vitamin mix. All market prices were used.

Also included are the feed costs for dry cows, springing heifers, pregnant heifers and growing heifers. The rations reflect what has been fed to these animal groups at the Penn State dairy herd. All market prices were used.

Income over feed cost using standardized rations and production data from the Penn State dairy herd.

Note: Penn State’s December milk price: $17.99/cwt; feed cost/cow: $5.71; average milk production: 84 lbs.

Feed cost/non-lactating animal/day.