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Progressive Events: Florida Dairy Production Conference highlights science and social media

Progressive Dairy Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 06 November 2019
Three dairy farmers shared their experiences

More than 250 dairy producers and industry representatives gathered at the University of Florida in Gainesville, on Sept. 18, for the 55th Annual Florida Dairy Production Conference.

While the morning focused on some of the recent advancements in calf and heifer raising management and dairy cattle genetics and reproduction, the afternoon shifted the focus toward social aspects of how dairies can position themselves to thrive in an ever-scrutinizing world.



Research highlights

Calf and heifer raising – Dr. Joao H. C. Costa, assistant professor in dairy science at the University of Kentucky, shared several studies comparing individually housed calves versus paired calves. The findings support early socialization of calves, specifically because of measurable advantages in behavioral flexibility and adaptability, as well as feed intakes and weight gains.

“No one has found that if you put calves by themselves they grow faster,” Costa said. “It’s really influential to say there are elements when a calf has another friend, it affects how it eats and how it grows, consequentially.”

Socially-housed calves displayed a lower drop in feed intake when mixed into groups and were faster to find resources such as feed in the mixed pen. Costa also noted calves given social contact displayed greater stimulation and attention towards feed. To address the question of at what age pairing must be done to be beneficial, he compared calves paired at less than one week versus those paired at five to six weeks versus calves kept individually through the weaning period.

The findings favored pairing very early on in the young calf’s life, validated by increased average daily gains. A current project coming out of Costa’s department looks at the economics of various methods of calf-raising, including individual versus conventional versus group housing, and various milk options (pasteurized versus replacer versus whole milk; conventional versus auto feeding).

Selecting replacement heifers – At the University of Florida, Dr. Francisco Peñagaricano discussed strategies for identifying the best and worst animals within a herd and implementing a plan to improve the genetics of those which will someday enter the milking string.


“We’ve improved repro efficiency and used sexed semen and improved cow management; we have reduced culling rates, so we need fewer replacements … now, there is room for selection,” Peñagaricano said.

He went on to note the greatest genetic gains can be made by incorporating a plan for genetic testing, such as genotyping only the top-ranked heifers for use of sexed semen, invitro fertilization (IVF) or embryo transfer (ET), or identifying the bottom-ranked heifers for early culling using beef semen. Genomic testing offers advantages in accuracy over other strategies such as using only the sire’s predicted transmitting ability (PTA) values.

Peñagaricano went on to validate genomics as a predictor of future performance, citing first-lactation production and udder health records which mirror genomic test results. Thus, genomics can be a valuable tool as part of a herd program to make proper selection and early culling decisions.

Improving fertility – In back-to-back presentations, Dr. Milo Wiltbank from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. José Santos from the University of Florida, honed in on measures to improve dairy cow fertility.

“In the early days, we pushed for programs that improved service rate,” Wiltbank recalled. “These days, we are looking for programs to improve fertility.”

Twenty-five years ago, a reasonable 21-day pregnancy rate was 15%; today, it’s not out of the ordinary to see herds striving for 30%, he pointed out.


“Most of these herds having really high fertility [30%, 21-day pregnancy rate], usually use some sort of timed- A.I. program for first A.I.,” Wiltbank said.

Double Ovsynch is one of those programs, and it’s been shown to give fertility a boost too. According to Wiltbank, the first Ovsynch is used to synchronize the animals and then it is a fertility program.

“We’ve also been using a second prostaglandin [in Double Ovsynch],” he said. “That improves fertility about 5% because there’s some animals that don’t regress their corpus luteum fully at the end.”

However, Wiltbank warned that an Ovsynch program used on its own does not achieve that same goal.

“We don’t get a higher fertility by just using Ovsynch … that’s really just a service rate program … but if we do presynchronization, then we can get higher fertility, so we can then dramatically improve our 21-day pregnancy rate,” he said.

Wiltbank added that a Resynch protocol is also a useful tool to maximize fertility and minimize the interbreeding interval. He said Resynch for the second service and greater with timed A.I. sets animals up to save valuable days open. “It’s really worth it because it decreases the interbreeding interval by a week,” he said.

Taking a nutritional approach to dairy cow fertility and overall health, Santos explained the significance of the transition period in relation to the cow’s ability to become pregnant efficiently.

“What really determines from a management standpoint whether this cow becomes pregnant or not, is not how much milk she produces, but what happened to her in the early post-partum period,” he said. His research indicates cows which maintain or lose less than 1 unit of body condition score (BCS) during the first 65 days in milk are more likely to resume estrous cycles and achieve pregnancy at first service after calving compared to other cows which lost more than 1 unit of BSC.

“Ideally, cows should not lose more than .5 units of body condition from the week before calving to first A.I.,” Santos said, emphasizing the importance of minimizing excess body condition losses with the onset of lactation, as well as avoiding cows and heifers to calve in overconditioned.

Santos also explained how disease in the first three weeks after calving creates long-term negative effects on reproduction. This can be minimized via diet by the following: supplementing rumen-protected choline pre- and early-postpartum; feeding diets with a dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD) of -100 mEq/kg in the close-up pen; supplying adequate metabolizable protein, particularly for heifers; and supplementing fatty acids from a source rich in omega-6 and omega-3.

Public perception and social media

In a day and age where dairy farming has become a target for activist groups, education, transparency and a demonstrated commitment to practices which support animal wellbeing have never been more important.

Fair Oaks Farms

Gary Corbett knows this to be true. As the CEO of Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, he remembered being part of the decision to open their barn doors to the public.

“Three of us sat in a pickup truck in a corn stubble field and made the final decision: Do we make this final leap?,” Corbett said. “It wasn’t a question of whether we can afford to do this, it was a question of whether we can’t afford not to.”

Fair Oaks Farms began publicly telling their story in 2004, and the foundational messages of environmental stewardship, animal welfare and nutrition have been magnified as the agriculture enterprise and educational center grew and diversified. Today, it includes the dairy component, as well as a center for crop education and swine production. Last year, a pick-your-own apple orchard opened, and a 1-million bird egg producing facility is in the works. The site now also includes its own restaurant, event center and hotel.

However, Corbett acknowledged, this success has not come without challenges. One of the most detrimental being the release of an undercover animal activist video from the Fair Oaks Farms’ calf facility earlier this year. “It was a horrific video,” he recalled. “It was staggering for us, because we had built our whole foundation on transparency.”

The first course of action Fair Oaks Farms took was to take ownership of the situation. “Immediately, we took responsibility,” Corbett said. They used social media channels to publicly acknowledge the situation and commit to steps to prevent it from happening again. While the support of some was lost, others stood beside Fair Oaks Farms during this challenging time, including their partner in the fairlife brand. “I will commend Coca Cola … they stood beside us the whole way and supported us,” Corbett added.

Social media

Three dairy farmers also shared their social media journeys:

Tara Vander Dussen has created an online following through blogging, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as the “New Mexico Milkmaid.” Her call to advocate for dairying came as a new mom seeking communities to connect with online. Here, she found herself in conversations with other mothers trying to make the best nutritional choices for their children, and the topic of milk and dairy farming often arose.

“I was spending a lot of time defending dairy in mom groups on Facebook,” Vander Dussen said. “I needed an outlet, my own page to be a voice.”

Today, her “voice” is heard by nearly 20,000 followers on Instagram alone. Vander Dussen said the posts she makes which receive the highest level of engagement online are videos and those with pictures of her activities on the dairy. “They want to see ‘you’,” she said.

Cousins Courtney Campbell (Nickerson Bar III) and Brittany Thurlow (Nickerson Cattle Company) are fifth-generation dairy farmers, milking a combined total of 4,500 cows on several sites throughout Florida. Their social media presence was prompted by a grassroots effort they are working on with a small group of other dairy farmers to certify the milk produced from their grass-based dairying systems as “Free Range 365.”

Together, the cousins are building a following with a strategy that includes a website; social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest; and press interviews and articles to share their story. They choose to post content with a photo as the main focal point, and accompanying text which delivers a quick, positive message. Hashtags are used to further the reach and bring other users to their pages.

Campbell and Thurlow described how they use metrics to measure their interactions for the highest response. “If we post on Tuesday and Thursday mornings a cute picture of our kids with the cows, that’s a winning post,” they said. Many of the photos posted are from a shoot on the farm with a professional photographer. By purchasing rights to all of the images, they have their own stock collection available at their fingertips.

From dairy science to social media, the 2019 Florida Dairy Production Conference left attendees with the research to make informed decisions on their dairies and the encouragement to share their stories.  end mark

PHOTO: Three dairy farmers shared their experiences establishing a presence and a following on social media, during the Florida Dairy Production Conference. From left to right, Brittany (Nickerson) Thurlow, Tara Vander Dussen and Courtney (Nickerson) Campbell. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

Peggy Coffeen
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