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0809 PD: Three steps to evaluating your dairy in tough economic times

Gene Boomer Published on 18 May 2009

In tough economic climates, relying on cows that can return the greatest profits is critical. Healthy and productive cows are pivotal to optimize cash flow and future returns.

To maintain herd health, production levels and cash flow, there are three areas to pay especially close attention to – culling decisions, transition cow management and herd reproductive performance.



Make disciplined culling decisions
One major cost to the dairy is sick, open and low-producing cows. During difficult economic times culling practices become even more important. The bottom one-third of the herd, which includes low producers, long-days-open and mastitic cows, should be identified and closely examined for their economic drag. These two tasks can ensure your culling decisions align with the results needed to keep your herd performing to its potential.

• Review lists frequently. In the past we may have reviewed the culling list about once a month, but with today’s market this practice should be done weekly to ensure the bottom-end cows are quickly removed. Keeping low-producing and sick cows in the herd from month-to-month can become a major expense.

• Use on-farm software. Software programs can identify animals performing below the herd’s goals quickly. Utilize settings in your software program that will calculate individual animal profitability, which will serve as a guide as you make culling decisions.

Keep the transition period consistent
The three weeks before and three weeks after calving is the most critical time during a cow’s lifecycle. How transition cows are fed and managed will directly influence uterine health, dry matter intake (DMI), early lactation milk production and future reproductive performance.

One of the main reasons cows struggle through the transition period is because DMI decreases drastically. The more intake is reduced, the more likely it is cows will freshen with metabolic disorders, leading to a myriad of health problems during the first 60 days in milk.


One proven way to prevent a drastic decline in DMI in the close-up pen is by lowering ration dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD) to an optimal range of -8 to -12 meq/100g ration dry matter. Feeding a ration with a negative DCAD mitigates the decline in DMI, prepares the rumen for the upcoming lactation and reduces the incidence of metabolic disorders at freshening. Research confirms feeding a ration formulated with a negative DCAD at least three weeks prepartum:

• Assists in the transfer of calcium from bone to bloodstream

• Increases postpartum milk production and DMI

• Reduces the incidence of milk fever, retained placentas and other costly uterine infections postcalving

Environmental influence
Keeping the environment consistent and comfortable throughout the transition period will directly influence postpartum performance. Follow these three management practices to ensure your transition cows reach the fresh pen ready for a successful lactation:

• Provide adequate feedbunk space to promote optimal DMI up to calving and immediately following freshening. Research shows a minimum of 30 inches of bunk space per cow should be provided to encourage their appetite. If there is large age variation in the close-up pen, consider providing more than 30 inches of bunk space per cow to provide adequate space for first-lactation heifers.


• Minimize pen moves as cows will eat less and experience higher stress each time they move into a new pen. Since transition cows are already prone to go off-feed, keep their environment consistent to reduce stress. Avoid pen moves altogether during the last 10 days in the close-up pen.

• Monitor cows regularly during logical times to identify potential problems early. Schedule regular walk-throughs to screen animal behavior and health when feed is delivered, as cows return to the pen following milking and when they are in headlocks.

Continue to focus on reproduction
Poor reproductive function continues to plague dairies and can lead to increased breeding costs and delayed pregnancy. In addition, reproductive diseases are an added expense and may not be easily detected. Proactively avoiding these problems, rather than treating them, should be the goal.

In harsh economic climates, reproductive management can take a back seat because results are not quickly realized and losses from reproduction cannot easily be identified or analyzed. Herd reproduction should remain a top priority to provide adequate numbers of replacement animals and to keep cows performing to their potential throughout the lactation. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

Gene Boomer Field Technical Services Manager Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition