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0207 PD: Tap consultants to boost profitability

Elliot Block Published on 06 February 2007

On many dairy operations, consultants are an integral part of the decision-making process. Their advice can significantly improve the profitability of your dairy. Getting the most from a consultant’s advice depends on adhering to this three-step process:

1) Build a relationship with the person to establish trust and get the services you desire.

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2) Do what they say. Follow through with consultant’s recommendations to solve problem areas.

3) Push the consultant to help identify the next problem areas to solve.

Greg Bethard, an independent nutritionist, says that when it comes to taking a consultant’s advice, it doesn’t matter how big the dairy is. What matters most is the respect that’s built into the relationship. And the producer has to be able to take and accept criticism.

Bethard consults on nutrition and problem-solving with herds of 300 to 5,000 cows in the High Plains region of the U.S., in Virginia and in Italy.

Bethard says that a dairy producer not willing to take criticism is probably wasting his or her money on a consultant. Likewise, a consultant needs to fulfill their end of the bargain and define a working relationship with each client.

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Be sure your consultant puts forth effort in identifying problems to improve, Bethard suggests. He does this by walking around the dairy and intently looking over cows, searching for every possible detail that could lead to better performance.

On a farm visit, Vicky Carson, a Newbury, Vermont, dairy owner and independent nutrition and management consultant, will walk through the herd alone and look at cows in a natural state – at the feedbunk or lying down. She also looks at calves and heifers. Carson looks for competition, overcrowding, body condition, how much feed is in the feedbunk and what they are eating. She analyzes that information along with the rations on paper.

Producers value her objective opinion because she is one of their own, and she is not out to sell them anything, she says.

Dairy producers need a consultant who is well trained in ruminant nutrition and who has a good grasp of how to work within the dairyman’s system. Carson believes solutions to problems that involve using more time, more money or more work just don’t fit into most operations.

Carson’s nutritional advice is based on achieving the most milk from each pound of feed from high-forage diets, utilizing forages that are typically grown on the dairies she works with. Her recommendations also promote the well-being of the whole herd – including cow health, immune system, reproductive health, feet and legs and so on. Because dry matter and health effects will pay for a higher price per ton of feed, she focuses her recommendations on the efficiency of the whole operation.

Using her own advice

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Heifer rumen development was a problem identified in her own herd. They weren’t stimulating the microflora population to grow in the rumen so heifers could effectively process forage. In 2003, the Carsons began adding a rumen fermentation enhancer to all heifer diets at a rate of 0.25 pounds per head per day. They fed the product from weaning to calving to improve rumen function and improve dry matter intake (DMI) and nitrogen utilization.

When the heifers calved, the Carsons saw immediate results. The milk weights of first-calf heifers are peaking 10 pounds higher than their predecessors. A 10-pound increase in peak milk production means another 2,000 pounds of production per heifer over their first lactation. That would net $240 per 2-year-old at $12 milk. The Carsons are also including the product in lactating cow rations at an approximate rate of 0.8 pounds per cow per day.

They tried the product in their own herd first and tracked production, milk fat and milk protein to scrutinize whether a response was evident. Once it works in their herd, Carson can make a stronger recommendation to her clients. She also relies on peer-reviewed, published literature detailing research studies on the products she tries and recommends to others.

Be accountable

Once you have found a consultant whose advice you trust and you’ve determined some of the problem areas to work on, the next step is follow-up and accountability. If a consultant outlines steps for the dairy owner or manager to improve upon, the consultant should spell out the steps in writing in a timely manner. The follow-up should specify recommendations and make sure the people responsible on the dairy follow through. Bethard says this is how consultants can hold the dairy accountable.

A dairy may be working with several consultants simultaneously, such as the veterinarian, nutritionist or financial and risk management adviser. Each of these consultants should correspond with each other and share information, if this type of arrangement is approved by the dairy owners.

Both Bethard and Carson’s services include meeting with most clients once per month and spending time with cows and the people working with the cows. Often these discussions will identify holes in the operation, including tasks that are not executed as they should be, such as whether cows are being fed the formulated ration consistently.

Bethard identifies these areas back to the ownership of the dairy to try to find problems and solutions. He finds that employees on the dairy enjoy having an outside person ask them how things are going. They are empowered because the dairy owner wants their input.

Look at things that matter

Bethard analyzes the performance of the dairy by looking at the herd records detailing fresh-cow health, reproduction, milk production and culling to make sure the herd is tracking in the right direction. He especially looks for fresh-cow problems that could hurt the dairy’s performance down the road, catching them early before they manifest themselves.

For example, he prefers to track pregnancy rates when analyzing reproduction in a herd. He looks at cows in certain stages of lactation on a given test day, rather than the average peak milk. Some cows may have peaked 300 days prior, so by the time a change is noticed the herd is already in a hole.

Carson advocates the use of spreadsheets and CPM dairy to analyze how diet changes could potentially change milk and component production. Parameters about the cows, environment and the diet are entered into CPM Dairy. The program predicts production and component responses to diet changes. The results are used to analyze income-over-feed cost and feed efficiency to compare the current diet with the proposed diet.

Bethard says the real job of the consultant is to encourage the producer to change, providing information and expertise to support the change. Bethard only recommends changes that can have a positive impact on profitability. He identifies problem areas by taking pictures of problem areas and uses management software reports, population graphs and data trend lines to define a problem and motivate the producer to fix it.

Base changes on sound science

Making a ration change or adding a product needs to be based on good science. Before recommendations are made, consultants look for sound philosophy behind the product research and answer the question: Does it have a physiological basis of why it would work? Consultants can help producers decide if a product makes financial sense by reviewing the technical data and, in some cases, by setting up a scenario to measure results.

For example, lowering pH of early lactation cows can be measured. This improves the calcium status and helps avoid costly metabolic disorders. When an anionic product is needed in a ration, a rumen fermentation enhancer can be added to improve fresh-cow health. Blood samples can be taken to identify low blood calcium. Once the anionic product is fed, samples can be taken again to see if calcium status improves.

An addition to the transition-cow ration that has shown a positive response for both consultants’ herds is essential fatty acids. This addition is based on sound research that shows how pregnancy rates improve up to 19 percent when essential fatty acids are fed during the cow’s transition period.

Research trials show how adding essential fatty acids to diets at 21 days before calving reduces retained placentas via prostaglandin synthesis. This in turn helps with expulsion of the placenta and uterus recovery after calving. Fewer retained placentas translate into reduced days to first estrus, reduced incidence of metritis and improved conception. This ultimately helps keep cows on a 13-month calving interval and can translate into an additional $300-$400 return per cow.

When Bethard recommends adding products to the ration, he helps the dairy owner decide whether it’s something that fits and whether it will be economical and profitable in the ration. He also considers other alterations needed to optimize DMI, efficiency and ration cost.

Bethard suggests that producers should push their consultants to identify problems that need to be fixed, so they can increase their profitability. If there are problems on the dairy, they need to clearly communicate the problems to the consultant. PD

References are available upon request.

Elliot Block

ARM & HAMMER

Animal Nutrition

To contact Dr. Block, e-mail him at

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