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Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

By Marcia Endres, University of Minnesota Extension Dairy Scientist

Two recent conferences in the upper Midwest focused on the topic of dairy welfare: the I-29 Dairy Conference in Sioux Falls and the Wisconsin Dairy and Beef Animal Husbandry Conference. We have been hearing more and more about dairy welfare in our industry. This is a societal issue that is here to stay.

Lameness is the most costly disorder in dairy herds.

Lameness was on the agenda at the I-29 conference. Jan Shearer, extension veterinarian at Iowa State, indicated that lameness is today the most costly disorder in dairy herds surpassing mastitis. It reduces milk production, impairs reproduction, and can result in premature culling and death. In the context of the three areas that comprise welfare – animal health and functioning, natural behavior, and affective states (pain, distress) suggested by Fraser (animal welfare expert at the University of British Columbia) – lameness fails in every one of them. A lame cow has impaired performance, can’t walk naturally and interact with her peers, and is certainly in a lot of pain. Therefore, the most important economic disorder in our dairy farms is also on the top of dairy welfare concerns.

It is possible to achieve low prevalence of lameness on farms. Our studies at the University of Minnesota have demonstrated that the average prevalence of lameness can vary from 6.5 to 30% depending on the housing system evaluated. On an individual farm basis, lameness prevalence ranged from 0% (yes, 0%) to 60%. It is not acceptable to be at that higher end of the scale. It is possible to have less than 10% of severe lame cows, preferably less than 5%. To achieve this goal we have to work on many aspects of the dairy operation as lameness is a multi-factorial disorder.

Cow handling has been identified as one of the factors that can contribute to lameness in cattle. Handling cattle in a quiet and slow manner doesn’t cost anything. There is no capital investment. Improving cattle handling will not solve the lameness problem by itself, but ways must be found to improve the situation.

Temple Grandin, animal welfare expert at Colorado State, talked about the relationship between fear and milk production in dairy cows at the I-29 conference. If cows are fearful of humans, milk production can be reduced by 10%. Grandin said that cows do not recognize human faces; they recognize places, smells, voices, distinctive clothing, and certain objects. Cows have long term memory, so it is important for a heifer to have a good experience the first time she enters a milking parlor. Something new can be both scary and attractive to cattle depending on how it is presented. If cattle are allowed to voluntarily approach something new (not forced), they will not be scared and will become accustomed to the object. One of the first signs of stress in cattle is when we can see the whites of their eyes. Another sign would be tail swishing when no flies are present. Grandin suggested that it could even be beneficial to hire someone to pet and handle calves. At a minimum, the person taking care of calves should be calm and nurturing. As the heifers get older, a person could walk in their pens every day to calm them further. This person could wear the same clothing as the milkers do (for example, a yellow apron). Then the heifers will associate milker clothing with a good experience so when they go to the milking parlor for the first time, they can be calmed by the sight of a familiar, nice, safe person.

At the Wisconsin conference, Naomi Botheras, animal welfare extension specialist at Ohio State, talked about the relationship between animal handling and productivity. She indicated that consistent negative relationships have been found between fear of humans and productivity in dairy, swine and poultry operations. High levels of fear of humans can result in animals fleeing, panicking, packing together or resisting, resulting in difficult sorting, increased likelihood of slips and falls, with consequent problems such as increased lameness prevalence and premature culling. At the same conference, Curt Pate, National Cattlemen’s Association, gave a live cattle handling demonstration. He made it look so easy, but it takes practice and understanding of cattle behavior to calmly move and sort animals like he did. We don’t need to use our arms, or yell, or be frantic, only understand flight zones and pressure points to move cattle.

Two take-home messages from these conferences: 1. Even though progress has been made, lameness continues to be one of the most important economic and welfare issues on dairy farms today. We need to continue to work on reducing risk factors for lameness. 2. Negative animal handling can have important consequences on productivity and well-being. We need to work with cattle in a calm and quiet manner. Good handling doesn’t cost anything. Let’s do it!


By Jim Salfer,  University of Minnesota Extension Educator-Dairy

Generally, there are animals on every dairy farm that end up costing you money rather than making you money. The question is, how many? This question is something that every dairy producer should ponder. Cows in milk are the only animals on dairy farms that are making money every day. Having dry cows and growing heifers are a necessary and important part of any dairy operation. They must

With current feed costs it is expensive for dairy producers to have excess non-productive days.

be well cared for to obtain maximum herd profitability, but they are not generating income. Research has shown that cows really only need a 40 to 50 day dry period, and well grown heifers can be very productive if calved between 22 to 24 months of age. Any dry days a cow has over 60 and any days that a heifer is not milking after her second birthday should be considered non-productive and has the potential to greatly decrease profit.

The average cost for a non-productive day for either a springing heifer or a dry cow in most herds is at least $2.50 per head per day. In looking at the DHI records of six well managed herds that I work with, all had an average age at first calving of 24 months. The percent of heifers calving older than 24 months ranged from 18% to 36%. Looking across all Minnesota DHIA herds, the average age at first calving is 26.4 months. A reasonable goal would be to have no more than 21 to 25% of heifers over 24 months when they calve. These same six herds varied from 5% to 19% of the herd being dry longer than 70 days. The Minnesota DHIA yardstick for 2010 shows that high producing herds are averaging 16% of cows dry longer than 70 days whereas lower producing herds are averaging 36%.

Table 1 shows the additional cost for all cows in the herd because of non-productive days. Herds with good management are able to keep their non-productive cost to $30.00 per cow annually compared to over $71 for herds that have a high number of long dry days and an older age at first calving. In a 100-cow herd, this adds up to over $4000 of lost profit in a year. Minnesota Farm Business Management records show that over the past 10 years, Minnesota producers only averaged $250 per cow return over labor and management. Therefore, decreasing the number of non-productive days has the potential to greatly improve the profitability of some dairy operations.

Here are some ideas on how to decrease non-productive days in a dairy herd:

  1. Develop a good heifer replacement program so that heifers gain 1.8 to 2.0 pounds per day.
  2. Focus on getting heifers inseminated within a narrow window. Use a strategy to have inseminated heifers at least once by 14 months of age. Be diligent about finding open heifers and getting them re-inseminated in a timely manner. An additional benefit of getting heifers bred within a narrow window is that it will help prevent having large over-conditioned heifers at calving.
  3. The best way to prevent long dry days in cows is to have a good reproductive program. Develop a plan to get all dry cows inseminated within 30 days of the end of the voluntary waiting period. Identify open cows rapidly and get them re-inseminated.
  4. Consider culling heifers and cows that do not conceive in a timely manner.
  5. If cows have long dry days because of poor production, consider culling them and replacing them with a more productive heifer.

With current feed costs it is expensive for dairy producers to have excess non-productive days. Estimate the cost of non-productive days on your herd profitability. Use records to determine the number of excess dry days (over 60 days dry) and age at first calving (over 24 months). If these days are excessive, work with your management team to develop an action plan to have more animals making you money rather than costing you money. This may be one way to help improve the bottom line of your dairy operation.

Table 1: Cost of non-productive days on profitability1
Percent of heifers older than 24 months of age at first calving2
Percent of cows dry longer than 70 days3 20% 25% 30% 35% 40%
10% $30.00 $35.63 $41.25 $46.88 $52.50
15% $33.75 $39.38 $45.00 $50.63 $56.25
20% $37.50 $43.13 $48.75 $54.38 $60.00
25% $41.25 $46.88 $52.50 $58.13 $63.75
30% $45.00 $50.63 $56.25 $61.88 $67.50
35% $48.75 $54.38 $60.00 $65.63 $71.25
1Cost per cow for all cows in the herd.
2Assumes a 36% replacement rate and that the average heifer over 24 months of age, calves at 26.5 months with an average daily cost of $2.50/head/day.
3Assumes that the average cow dry longer than 70 days is dry an average of 90 days with an average daily cost of $2.50/head/day for all days dry longer than 60 days.

By Jim Salfer, University of Minnesota Dairy Extension

Supply/demand reports and futures prices indicate that we are going to have high feed costs in 2011. Fortunately, most of Minnesota experienced excellent growing conditions resulting in high yields that provide good inventories of both forages and grains for dairy producers.

Feed costs are the biggest single cost on dairy farms and with the outlook of lower milk prices and higher feed costs, it pays to develop strategies to keep feed costs as low as possible.

Here are five factors to consider as we move into the winter feeding season:

  1. Think about minimizing purchased feed costs. One way to minimize purchased feed cost is to maximize the feeding of home raised forage. No doubt, forages are now already in storage. But, if possible, select and feed out forage based on animal requirements. Bred heifers do not require a 150 relative feed quality forage for optimum performance. Work with your nutritionist to feed the combination of forages and home grown feeds that will minimize purchased feed costs.Some feeds may be a good buy but if they displace home raised feeds that are in inventory, it will increase purchased feed costs.
  2. Lactating cows pay the bills. Milk income must support all the feed for the lactating cows, dry cows, and all youngstock.A higher lactating:non-lactating animal ratio will help to minimize whole herd feed costs. Unless they are genetically superior, consider culling cows that will have a long dry period. If cows are milking well toward the end of lactation, consider shortening their dry period to 35 days for second and later lactation cows and 45 days for first lactation cows. Research has shown that these shorter dry periods have no detrimental affect on subsequent lactations and may actually result in less ketosis and better reproduction the following lactation. Another way to decrease the number of non-lactating cows is to get heifers bred in a timely manner. Many producers achieve high production with an average first calving age of 22 to 24 months. Develop a strategy to get all heifers not bred by 15 months inseminated soon. If adequate numbers of replacements are available, consider selling heifers that do not conceive in a timely manner. Cull all unthrifty heifers that had pneumonia as calves.
  3. Think about ingredient selection. This is the area that many producers and nutritionists first focus on when feed costs increase. It is always good to think about ingredient cost but more needs to be considered than just the price of ingredients. Cows like consistency. Constantly changing ingredients and rations because one ingredient is a good buy this week may affect production and cow performance. Focus on ingredients for which you can get a consistent supply, with a consistent nutrient analysis. Some ingredients are consistently better buys that others. Wet feeds are often good buys on a nutrient content basis but if you cannot feed enough to stay ahead of the spoilage, lost performance and/or discarded feed may negate any price advantage.
  4. Consider ration specifications. Now is a good time to review your ration specifications with your nutritionist. All nutritionists overbalance rations slightly to ensure that all cows are getting their nutrient requirements. Help your nutritionist to minimize the amount he/she uses to over-formulate to meet the cows needs. Most of these factors focus on ingredient consistency and animal specifications within a group. For the lactating herd one method of determining consistency of the feeding program and protein use efficiency is milk urea nitrogen (MUN) measurements. Most processors now measure MUN on a regular basis. The best MUN value will vary between herds depending on ingredients, but many producers achieve excellent production with MUN values between 8 and 12 mg/dl. Share your values with your nutritionist. Consistent MUN values mean a more consistent feeding program. Table 1 shows some of the factors that will affect ration formulation.

    Do not over-formulate with the hope of more milk production. If you have high days in milk or another factor affecting production, adjust the ration accordingly.

  5. Minimize feed waste. As feed costs increase, the cost of feed waste increases. Manage piles, bunkers, bags and other storage to minimize waste. Store hay under cover. Tarps and plastic are cheap compared to spoiled hay. Manage or redesign feed bunks to minimize feed waste. Minimize feed refusals. Many high producing herds have refusals of 2% or less.

Producers who focus on producing high quality forages and then managing those forages and purchased feed costs are consistently the most profitable. This is more than just buying the cheapest ingredients. Working with your nutritionist and focusing on the factors listed above will help you minimize feed costs while maximizing productivity.

Factors that affect ration formulation.
Factors that increase requirement for over-formulation

  • Higher milk price and lower feed costs
  • Higher variation in ingredients analysis
    (forages or purchased ingredients)
  • Wide variation in requirements in groups of animals
    (must balance for the highest requirement in the pen)
  • Poor feed management
    (mixing procedures, dry matter determination, careful
    weighing of ingredients)
  • Not knowing dry matter intake

Factors that decrease requirement of over-formulation

  • Low milk price and higher feed costs
  • Consistent ingredients
  • Consistent dry matter