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What group does that cow belong in? Does it matter?

Harley Wagenseller Published on 09 August 2013

“What group does that cow go in?” This was a question posed to me a couple of years ago by a young man trying to re-organize a neglected dairy.

He had so many questions that I ended up writing a three-part article titled “How to Bring Your Dairy Back to Life” back in 2011 for this fine magazine.

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One of the first things that I suggested was to take the time to identify how to properly group your cows. Let’s explore some of the many ways we properly do this.

One of the limited ways regarding grouping cows is the size of your holding pen. I have observed a holding pen where they convert part of a freestall barn at milking time by putting up a couple of gates outside the milking parlor – simplicity at its finest.

I have also experienced a holding pen that was half the size of a football field. It easily held 500 cows. It utilized two different crowd gates. Stage one was a pre-wash pen – the second stage was the full-wash via rainbird sprinklers, and the third stage was the drip-dry/enter the parlor stage.

When you milk 60 cows at a time, 2,000 cows a day 3X, you can see why you need a large holding pen. Let’s list some of the different cow groups you possibly could have on your farm.

You could, of course, have one group that you simply milk regardless of any info on the cows simply for convenience’s sake. You also may have a high-production group and a low-production group.

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You could have your cows grouped according to days in milk or stage of lactation (fresh to 30 days) (30 to 200 days) (200 days to dry-off), for example.

Stage of gestation (open cows group, pregnant group) fat or over-conditioned cow group; a really fast-milking cow group (27 pounds per milking per cow in 2.5 minutes); cows too skinny needing a more energy-dense ration; a bad-foot cow group; a slow-milking group; a fresh heifer group; a do-not-breed group; a once-a-day milking group; 2X, 3X, 4X group; possibly three dry cow groups – a just recently dried-off group, a mid-dry-off group and a pre-fresh prepartum group; a Holstein-only group or a Jersey-only group; a high somatic cell count group; or a staph aureus group.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless.

Let’s talk about your options on a 600-cow dairy, for example. How can you successfully group all these cows? Providing your cows are on a good, sound nutritional program, we may set them up like this. First, your pre-fresh group to 21 days prepartum.

Second, your fresh cow group, where cows may stay from seven to 21 days at 3X milking postpartum. Third, a very high-production group that is milked 4X (more than 120 pounds per cow per day).

Fourth, a high-production group 3X. Fifth, a pregnant group 3X. Sixth, a low-production group 2X, and finally a dry cow group.

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People may ask: What about a hospital herd? If you have some small enough stalls, you could put a foot problem cow or mastitis cows in their area.

Possibly, if you have limited space, you may have to put them in your fresh cow group, but I would advise against this unless you have no choice.

I have seen some farms where they put the sick cow pen right next to the milking parlor.

A nice idea for milkers to put sore-foot cows so they don’t have to walk so far; however, all the commotion you naturally have as a result of this particular area in a holding pen and entrance to the milk parlor and return lane sure doesn’t allow for cows to get rest as they need it.

Especially if your milkers are an overly enthusiastic bunch.

Let’s talk for a couple of minutes about moving cows from one group to another. Some people are absolutely dead-set against this endeavor.

I have seen owners pace a floor with sweat dripping off their forehead (This reaction is greatly overblown), followed by comments like: “The cows will plummet for days or weeks in production.” My experience is that cows lag slightly for one to two days and then go right back up. Most people’s fears are never realized.

I would encourage those of you who dislike cow movements to be more flexible. People are worried more than the cows themselves. After a couple of days, they adapt well to their new group.

Sometimes timid heifers are timid wherever they are located. The problem with keeping cows in one group for their entire lactation until they are dried off can be seen in cows that score 4+ in BCS, giving 40 pounds of milk, that are being fed like they are supposed to give 110 pounds.

It doesn’t work for the cow going into the dry lot too fat and especially doesn’t help the checkbook.

A nice time to make moves, in my experience, comes after the vet check day on your farm. Another time is the pressure you put on your fresh pen, where preferably you won’t exceed 90 percent occupancy anyway.

Another time may be right after “weigh day” on your dairy. Numbers are often revealing, aren’t they? Common sense must always dictate any time you move cows.

Do you have the option of moving those 20 cows to the new group at the rate of a few each day? Perhaps that is a better way to go.

Sometimes trying to force a cow to do some things after two weeks of being unsuccessful should be a clue. You may have a cow that just won’t lay in a freestall barn properly. Those “alley cats” just love lying in the manure of a freestall barn, no matter what you do.

Your choices are: One, tolerate it, knowing that your milking personnel will have to spend extra time cleaning her. Two, put her in a “special needs” area if she is a high producer that just won’t adapt to the routine of a freestall.

Three, sell her because your time is more valuable than the aggravation she gives you. Trying to be as analytical as you can with things like this will pay off.

Another possible issue is where to put the “I’m always in heat” cow. What group does she go in? This is one of those cows who rides other cows to the hard concrete floor in a freestall barn and renders at least one cow every couple of weeks useless. This cow is doing more harm than good. She needs to take a ride or go to your freezer.

Does it really matter how you group your cows? I hope that after you have considered this article you have food for thought. Your pocketbook, almost 100 percent of the time, will dictate you must properly do this exercise.

For example, if you fail to transfer certain cows from one group to another, and it costs you 1,000 pounds of milk a day – over the course of 30 days at $19 per hundredweight, that’s $5,700 out of your milk check. How badly do you want to stay in business? PD

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Harley Wagenseller
Dairy Manager

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