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1608 PD: Improve profits by managing these two key areas

Elliot Block Published on 06 November 2008

Milk production and reproduction are two key management areas that are relied upon to maintain and advance profitability on the dairy. Because of their integral role in the dairy’s success, it’s no surprise that recent research conducted in Denmark identified these areas as ones that, when improved, resulted in the greatest increase in gross margins for the dairy operation.

The study, published in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science, concluded that improving the herd-level lactation curve increased gross margins 2.6 times more than an improvement in reproduction. In turn, enhanced reproduction improved gross margins an additional 5.9 times more than management related to heifers, body condition scores, mortality and somatic cell counts. These top-ranked management areas improved profits the most when even small management changes were implemented.



Regardless of rank, making improvements to the lactation curve and reproductive performance can result in additional profits on your dairy. And one common thread links both areas – nutrition.

Lactation curve is top priority
Additional returns from improved milk production are no secret, says Dr. Mike Overton of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia. Since milk sales provide about 90 percent of total farm income, improving the lactation curve through increased peak milk and extended persistency of the curve can lead to more income.

To ensure a smooth transition into the milking string, Overton notes the importance of a well-managed close-up nutrition program to optimize rumen function while successfully avoiding costly metabolic disorders. If cows are able to transition properly, they will reach peak milk production in a timely manner, resulting in more milk throughout the lactation. A 1-pound improvement in peak milk can mean an additional 250 pounds of milk produced during that one lactation, Overton says.

But if a cow stumbles when she enters the milking string and experiences a metabolic disorder or goes off-feed, there may be a 5- or 6-pound drop in production per day over the first 100 days of the lactation. Lost milk equates to lost money, making proper nutrition especially critical to maintain milk production and profits.

One proven way to improve early lactation performance is through proper dietary cation anion difference (DCAD) balancing, recommends Overton. In the close-up pen, a negative DCAD helps to minimize incidence of metabolic disorders, like hypocalcemia, by pulling necessary calcium from the bone to maintain adequate levels in the bloodstream. Negative DCAD levels also help to maintain dry matter intake (DMI), which Overton notes as one of the necessary tools cows need to smoothly join the milking string after calving. Negative DCAD can be achieved nutritionally by minimizing the cations and increasing the anions to bring DCAD levels down to an optimal range of -5 to -10 milliequivalents (meq) per 100 grams of ration dry matter, according to Overton.


Once in the fresh cow pen, a positive DCAD can improve milk and component production, leading to a bigger milk check. A new research study from Washington State University investigated the response of fresh, high-producing cows to higher DCAD levels. The treatment group was supplemented with a commercial feed-grade potassium carbonate source to boost DCAD to an optimal level of +42 meq per 100 grams of ration dry matter, while the control group was fed DCAD levels of +25 meq per 100 grams of ration dry matter through forage sources alone. The treatment group responded by producing an additional 8.32 pounds per cow per day of fat-corrected milk and increased milk fat levels to 4.32 percent, resulting in additional profits of approximately $0.80 per cow per day at $18 per hundredweight milk.

Overton also mentions that focusing on ensuring the proper intake of nutrients during the transition period will yield higher levels of production. Feeding the proper balance of energy and high-quality protein (and ensuring an adequate supply of critical amino acids such as methionine and lysine) during the close-up and fresh periods will help cows hit desired peaks. Following peak, producers can help maintain persistency by providing ample access to properly balanced diets and ensuring adequate energy intake. When managed properly, improving production can provide relatively quick results, with improvements in milk weights and peak milk within the first few months. If only one area can be improved upon immediately to boost gross margins, improving the lactation curve would be the first place to focus.

Improving reproductive performance through focus areas
Because of its importance to profitability, the Denmark-based study named reproduction as a close second as a way to improve gross profits. Dr. Neil Michael, director of technical services with ABS Global, says this makes sense because a consistent supply of quality pregnancies fuels both milk production and youngstock supply, while decreasing involuntary reproductive culls.

Michael notes improving reproductive performance is a balance between evaluation of records with the dairy management team and subsequently addressing the focus area opportunities agreed upon by the dairy. Focus areas may involve many combinations of causes, unique to each reproductive program. Key reproductive indicators, such as pregnancy rate, can then be monitored on a routine basis for improvement. Michael also states that steady incremental improvements are much more manageable and important to a dairy than trying to reach a goal or benchmark average.

The frequency at which reproductive records can be effectively evaluated will differ – from weekly for larger operations to monthly for smaller operations due to the amount of data generated. Regardless of frequency, on-farm decision-makers should ask, “Have we improved the areas we set out to?” and “Now that we’ve met this goal, what is our next step?”

Another way to help maintain reproduction consistency, according to Michael, is through proper formulation and delivery of the ration. Optimal nutrition management is critical to healthy, fertile animals during the voluntary waiting period. He also notes that deficiencies in the feeding program can lead to inconsistent reproductive results from a myriad of metabolic disorders that may result in decreased ovarian activity, depressed heat expression and additional days to pregnancy confirmation.


Environment’s role in profitability
Both Michael and Overton emphasize the importance of proper transition period management, including:

• Avoid overcrowding
Close-up and fresh pens should provide adequate space to promote optimal DMI and encourage cows to lie down. Especially during the transition period when stress levels are high, more space per animal at the feedbunk can help avoid additional herd health problems caused by overcrowding.

• Group cows appropriately
Overton recommends grouping first-lactation heifers apart from older cows, at least during the close-up and early lactation periods, to help smooth the transition into the lactating herd.

• Provide adequate comfort
Comfortable stalls with adequate bedding, the use of heat abatement tools, and rubber mats to and from the milking parlor are ways Overton recommends to keep cows comfortable.

• Focus on cows’ time budgets
Cows need a certain number of hours to devote to important tasks including eating, drinking, socializing and lying down. Allow cows to meet their needed time allotments to ensure they can maximize production levels and have the energy necessary to devote to reproductive function. Michael stresses the importance of monitoring these key behaviors on a regular basis.

• Resocialization
Introducing too many pen changes has a negative impact on DMI, cow health and overall productivity. Work to minimize the number of pen moves a cow experiences and do not move cows during the last 10 days before calving.

No matter how you’re looking to improve profitability, there are a variety of proven, profit-making management areas. Although it may take time to establish the measurement goals, you will see the results you’re looking for and the return on your investment. PD

Elliot Block
Animal Nutrition