Dairy herd profitability: It’s all in the details

CLARKS MILLS, Pa. — It was a lofty title for a program — the Pennsylvania Dairy Profitability Forum — but the take-home message was well-grounded: Get better first.

And to do that, you gotta sweat the small stuff.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and its Center for Dairy Excellence hosted two forums on boosting production and profitability last week. In eastern Pa., the forum was held Nov. 18 at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg; in western Pa., the session was Nov. 19 at the Clarks Mills United Methodist Church north of Mercer.

If you want to become more profitable, the key is making more milk, said David Galligan of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and you do that by adding more cows or getting more milk production per cow.

Details, details

The day’s speakers, however, didn’t emphasize adding more cows, but stressed getting better first, or, in other words, getting more milk production per cow, getting calves started right, improving calving intervals, culling rates and lowering somatic cell counts.

For example, a 500-cow herd can realize $30,000 savings per year just by trimming heifers’ age at first calving from 26 months to 24 months, Galligan said.

Likewise, added Jim Dickerell, editor of Dairy Today, even if your somatic cell count is at 200,000, you’re still losing 2.6 pounds/cow/day and 1.3 pounds/heifer/day. At $18/hundredweight milk, Dickerell said, that’s an annual loss of $14,000 for a 100-cow herd, not counting lost premiums and cost of mastitis.

Internal herd growth

Mike Evanish of MSC Business Services, an arm of the Pa. Farm Bureau, points to internal herd growth as the “largest profit leak” on a dairy farm, saying success or failure in this area has a “profound effect” on a farm’s net margin and equity.

The farms the business group works with participate in a farm business analysis that has yielded striking results about internal herd growth, he added. Farms in the MSC survey with positive internal herd growth showed much stronger net bottom lines than herds with negative growth — to the tune of a net margin of $86,902 compared to $30,911 in 2007.

Milk producers need to pay more attention to their calf and heifer raising programs, Evanish said, because they can pay off big-time.

Colostrum check

That attention should start from Day One with a calf and the feeding of quality colostrum, said Sam Leadley of Attica Veterinary Associates.

The benefits of good colostrum management on a 100-cow dairy is worth $16,555, he estimates. “It’s probably one of the most profitable things that can be done on a farm.”

Then, he spent the next 30 minutes explaining why, asking first if anyone has ever had his cows’ colostrum checked for bacteria counts. No hands. But Leadley’s checked plenty, and a 2005 Pa. survey of colostrum collected prior to feeding calves found two-thirds of samples had coliform counts high enough to make calves sick. Some were high enough to kill calves. That’s because colostrum not fed or chilled immediately can contain environmental bacteria that double in numbers every 20 minutes.

“And we think we’re doing a good job,” Leadley said.

He emphasized the importance of rapid chilling of the colostrum, and the importance of washing the container used for colostrum, and ultimately the importance of getting that colostrum in the calf as soon as possible, not after you’re done milking the rest of the herd.

The ability of the calf to absorb antibodies in the blood drops every hour, he said. The goal should be to get that colostrum in the calf in the first two hours, when it can absorb 100 percent of the antibodies.

You can also get better by:

— Overstocking pens. Just be careful, too many cows or heifers crammed in a small space will actually cost you money.

— Staying on top of feeding plans. Feed costs in the Midwest are running close to 60 percent of total costs, so know what you’re feeding, Dickerell said. Some herds are overfeeding protein, other herds are underfeeding protein. Check your MUN (milk urea nitrogen) levels and find out where you stand.

“Work with your ration adviser,” he added. “It’s quality, quality, quality feed that makes milk.”

— Improving your transition cow management. You want her (and her calf) to hit the ground running after calving.

Also featured

The western Pa. forum featured a panel discussion with producers Brenda Irwin of Centerville, Steve Paxton of Grove City and Richard Shirey of New Bethlehem.

The forums — which drew 87 people in western Pa. and 187 people in Harrisburg — also included sessions with University of Wisconsin ag engineer David Kammel, who served up a lot of low-cost alternatives to expensive barns and parlors; robotic technology with representatives from DeLaval and Lely USA; an update on best practice accounting by Brad Hilty from the Penn State Dairy Alliance; and renewable energy technologies, more specifically small-scale methane digesters, by Yassar Farhan from EMG International.

Pa. Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff spoke at the Harrisburg forum only.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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