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Don’t lock up your cash cows

Pauly Paul for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016

What would you do with a few thousand dollars extra in the checkbook at the end of every month? Replace worn-out freestalls; start planning a new transition cow barn; add technology to the parlor? What if just a few small changes to one area of your operation could make that possible?

For one particular client of mine, less time in lockups increased cash flow and freed up dollars for other improvements on the dairy.

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Flawless fresh pen protocols

When I got the call from the distressed dairy owner, the first task at hand was to increase cash flow. So I started looking for ways to get more milk out of the cows and cut expenses without sacrificing cow health. It didn’t take long for me to find a bottleneck that was penning up profits.

If awards were given for strict adherence to fresh cow protocols, this dairy would have had to build a trophy room. Their daily procedure was to lock up all the fresh cows and give each one a careful and complete examination.

With a stethoscope and thermometer in hand, the well-trained workers were instructed to watch for the slightest symptoms and aggressively treat any cow in this group on the verge of a metabolic disease.

That meant administering the appropriate bolus, shot, drench or I.V. according to the prescribed protocol. Around 15 to 20 percent of the fresh cows were receiving some sort of preventative or therapeutic treatment.

These workers were doing exactly what they were trained to do: find sick cows and treat them. In fact, they were so thorough and so good at their jobs, they spent all day working the fresh cow pen. That’s why my recommendation had the dairy owner scratching his head.

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Quit locking up cows?

My instructions were simple: Quit locking up cows. You see, these cows were spending way too much time locked up and not enough laying down and making milk. The lockups were interfering with their ability to eat, drink and carry on a stress-free day. Both healthy and sick cows were confined in the headlocks while the entire group underwent full examinations.

Once released, the cows naturally headed for the nearest waterer. However, with three waterers in the pen and room for only four cows at each one, only 12 of the 80 cows were able to drink at a time.

Though a few may have stuck around and waited their turn, most of the others retreated to a stall to lie down after being on their feet for an extended period of time. Not only were the cows stressed and exhausted, but they were also failing to consume adequate amounts of the nutrient most critical for health and milk production.

Though the intentions were good, locking up all of the fresh cows was clearly counterproductive. These cows didn’t need to be poked and prodded; they really just needed to be left alone to do their thing – eat, drink and rest – without interruption.

My fix for this was to re-train the workers to use their eyes more and their hands less. Instead of full-pen lockups and examinations, we started observing cows in the parlor, during their daily routine, and just walking pens more often. When a cow seemed “off,” they learned not to rush in with a full arsenal of treatments; instead, they started observing eating behavior and only locking up and treating the cows that actually needed it.

Let them eat

Most cows will “eat” their way through minor symptoms; they just have to be given the opportunity to do it. Providing enough fresh feed is especially important for fresh cows. This dairy was trying to cut down the feed refusal rate to 2 percent with the remainder of the expensive lactating-cow ration going to their heifers.

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As it turned out, limiting feed was resulting in lost milk. Cows were coming back to only a couple of inches of feed at the bunk, which was not enough to satisfy their post-milking appetites.

The heifers weren’t benefiting either; the high-energy feed added too much body condition. My solution was to increase the refusal rate to 5 percent and feed the leftovers to the late-lactation group. On just their normal, cheaper heifer ration without the added fresh cow refusals, the dairy actually saved money.

The results

The combination of these new approaches cut the farm’s drug costs in half and reduced the number of cows treated down to just 1 percent of the fresh pen. The fresh group gained a couple pounds of milk in the process while saving on overall feed costs. With a few simple changes, cutting expenses and increasing cash flow helped this dairy dig out of a bad situation.  PD

Pauly Paul
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