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Defining a profitable cow

Mandy Schmidt for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 September 2018

Operations need ongoing, strategic production plans focused toward impactful areas to the business. Long-term profit revolves around every single business unit having production plan alignment and consistent efficiency. A single business unit, in our industry, is an individual cow.

To maximize operation profitability, we need to define the ideal cow. We should know what creates the most return on investment before investing in thousands of business units. However, deciding which genetic traits are most impactful is not as simple as sorting your computer records to find the highest-producing cow’s sire, then using him on repeat for the next five years.

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Genetic selection to create optimized business units can be a significant change from historic genetic practices. Traditional does not always mean profitable.

Analyze milk market shifts. Has your genetic trait emphasis mirrored the change or impending changes? Are you breeding for what is profitable today – or for what will be profitable in five years?

Consider, with the way consumers purchase dairy products, what will processors value in coming years? In many areas, milk markets are reflecting the trend that consumers are eating their dairy products more than drinking them. Solids have become the priority.

Optimal product value and efficiency

If solids bring more benefit than water to your milk check, you likely consult average energy-corrected milk as a benchmark over average milk when determining a cow’s profit ranking in your herd. Similarly, genetic emphasis for pounds fat and protein is going to be more economical to you than genetic ability for pure flow with milk.

Designing a profitable cow, with the most desirable milk composition for your market, may be to remove the “water weight” from your tank with emphasis on percent components. With fuel and hauling fees continuing to chip away at already slim margins, make a more efficient product, with enhanced density, from genetic focus for percent fat or protein.

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Beyond aligning with pricing schemes and premiums, every cow standing in the barn should have a genetic predisposition toward efficiency. Just because a cow is producing over 150 pounds per day does not mean that cow is your most profitable cow. Huge inputs may outweigh huge outputs.

One method to lower cost of production is with genetic selection for smaller-sized cows. A smaller cow will require less feed to reach mature size and less maintenance feed over its lifetime when compared to larger herdmates. Cow size and production amount are not correlated.

Longevity also plays a tremendous role in efficiency. Long Productive Life cows give more return on investment, more production on a day-to-day basis when compared to a 2-year-old and better odds of departing the herd as a voluntary cull versus an untimely involuntary cull.

Prioritize expenses

The labor line item will often be close to the top of annual expenses. Analyze where time is spent due to inefficiencies. Unhealthy cows reduce labor efficiency with more “touch points” for treatments and pen movements.

Not having day-to-day life interventions from health issues means a cow is sustainable and doing its job effortlessly. Health genetic traits, such as udder health with Somatic Cell Score or transition health, reduce inputs for labor, treatment and service inputs.

Disease-resistant cows avoid situations prohibiting normal production and reproduction. Keeping a cow healthy means keeping the cow in production, thus creating a salable product. A record-breaking producer does not do your operation much good if a significant amount of its lactation is spent producing milk for the hospital tank.

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Reproductively unfortunate cows also cause more touch points and longer days open. Conceiving earlier with a respectable calving interval means a cow is freshening and hitting lactation peaks more often, where income over feed costs are highest.

To an extent, you can feed for more production or manipulate components, but feeding for a higher pregnancy rate would be quite the trick in an already well-managed herd. The impact of female fertility trait, Daughter Pregnancy Rate, is unquestionable.

Throw out mob mentality

We like to group animals by age, stage of lactation and reproductive status. It is practical and logical for most aspects of the dairy, except genetic selection.

It would be easy to assume younger animals are all genetically superior to older herdmates. However, mass mentality doesn’t play well with genetic principles.

Every age group is going to have a bell-shaped distribution curve with high to low genetic potential. Not every first-lactation cow is genetically superior to every second-lactation cow.

It is common to have hundreds of dollars’ difference in lifetime profitability between the best and worst animals. Genetically speaking, like begets like. Exceptions do exist yet, generally, good cows will make good cows, and your bad cows will create another generation of disappointment.

One of the scariest paths a dairy can head down, genetically, is not differentiating between the good and bad when creating their next generation of herd replacements. Strategically selecting females to create herd replacements based on real genetic value, versus assumed genetic superiority, is key to maximum genetic progress.

Each replacement heifer will have a similar amount of investment in them by the time they reach the milking herd. It would be foolish, in any industry, to waste resources on limited earning potential business units.

Working with Mother Nature, not against

The easy way out in genetic planning is to say you are not a genetics person and prefer to manage cows to their potential. Unfortunately, good ol’ Mother Nature has been around a lot longer and is not easily swayed with your improved feeding techniques or aggressive synch programs.

You can only out-manage good genetics so far. Eventually, your progress from great management will plateau when the genetic potential of your herd has reached its cap.

Actionable steps to make profitable cows through genetics:

  • Work with a genetic adviser to develop a customized genetic plan to provide the greatest return on investment per business unit (cow).

  • Select consistent genetics aligned with your maximum profit return areas.

  • To make drastic change for your future herd, consider powerful genetic tools such as embryo transfer.  end mark
Mandy Schmidt
  • Mandy Schmidt

  • North American Dairy Genetic Services Specialist
  • ABS Global
  • Email Mandy Schmidt

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