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Data detectives: Use your data to increase long-term efficiency and profitability

Mark Case for Progressive Dairy Published on 24 February 2021

Even with dramatic increases in productivity in the past 50 years, every dairy farm still has opportunities to improve efficiency and profitability. One way to do this is to harness and make sense of your farm’s data. Many dairies already collect much of this data, but never use it to the extent it could be used.

Farm accounting firms often set benchmarks for dairies, highlighting opportunities for farms to improve. But what do these numbers really mean? What management steps are needed to make a difference? Which numbers have the biggest impact?



Zoetis and Compeer Financial analyzed 11 years of herd data (beginning in 2006) from 489 year-end financial and production record summaries, which identified six key drivers of profitability on dairies based on net farm income. They found that these “Six Dairy Financial Drivers” account for 85% of the variation in farm profitability.

By analyzing the data that goes into these drivers, we can better understand where opportunities lie. We can also use our detective skills to understand what factors impact these data points, which then helps us determine what management steps can have the biggest effects.

1. Somatic cell count (SCC)

Herds with high SCC have lower pregnancy rates and greater death losses. The top third of herds in the study had an average bulk tank SCC of 132,000 cells per milliliter, while the bottom third of herds averaged 284,000 cells per milliliter. The study also showed that, for every 100,000 cells per milliliter increase in bulk tank SCC, milk yield declines 5.5 pounds.

Let’s dig deeper into your data. Culturing high-SCC cows can help you understand what pathogen is causing the problem. You may need to adjust your mastitis protocols accordingly. Perhaps you need to evaluate milking procedure, milking parlor maintenance, water quality, feed hygiene, bedding and/or cow comfort.

2. Energy-corrected milk (ECM)

According to the study, the difference between the top- and bottom-third herds was about 20 pounds of milk per day or 76 cents net farm income per hundredweight (cwt). What is a reasonable goal for milk production on your farm? Do you achieve 6 pounds of combined fat and protein yield for Holsteins or 5.25 pounds for Jerseys? High-ECM herds also show an improved 21-day pregnancy rate, lower feed costs per hundredweight, fewer days open, lower death loss and reduced SCC.


If your herd dynamics are off – such as a high percentage of 2-year-old cows (more than 40%) or high days in milk (DIM; greater than 180) – this can impact production. Second-lactation cows produce 15% more milk than first-lactation cows, and third-plus-lactation cows produce 10% more than second-lactation cows.

It is important to monitor milk starts and peaks. If cows have slow starts, they have a hard time peaking like they should. The percentage of cows that fail to meet goals for milk starts is directly related to the transition program. Investigating the data around transition – stocking density, health events and stillborn calves – can help you determine if it warrants a change in management, environment or nutrition strategy. Work with your nutritionist to strategically formulate milk rations to foster more butterfat and protein yield.

3. Net herd turnover cost (replacement cost)

The study showed a $1.08 per cwt difference in net herd turnover cost when comparing the most profitable and least profitable dairy herds. Do you have too many heifers in the pipeline? Could this cause you to cull older cows earlier than necessary? What strategies can help you manage your heifer needs without causing a hole in supply?

Overproduction of heifers can cause a cash-flow crunch. Raising the right number of heifers is important, but raising the right heifers is important too. Utilization of genomics or parentage can identify the heifers with lower potential. Many semen suppliers have mating programs which can help you manage this. They can help to determine which animals should receive beef semen, sexed semen and conventional semen.

4. Death loss

The study found the difference in death loss between the top third of herds (4.3%) and bottom third (10%) was $138 more per cow per year, or 7 more pounds of milk per cow per day. Do you know the incidence of death loss on your dairy and why? Are you recording these deaths and the causes?

Most death losses occur during the first 60 days of milk. If death loss is too high in this time period, evaluate transition and fresh cow programs. Other common reasons for death loss are injuries and digestive health challenges, such as hemorrhagic bowel syndrome. Having consistent recording of the reasons cows die on your dairy allows you to more quickly identify and mitigate the causes. A low death loss percentage indicates good animal husbandry skills, which is a critical component of generating higher net farm income. Thoughtfully consider whether you have the right team members in place and whether they are well-trained.


5. Pregnancy rate

The most profitable herds had an average pregnancy rate of 27.4%. Factors such as voluntary waiting period, heat detection, timed A.I. compliance and technicians’ conception rates are key areas to dig into and understand. A high pregnancy rate helps ensure your herd is in the optimal range for DIM. For every 10-day reduction in DIM, average herd milk production will increase 1.2 to 1.7 pounds per cow per day. Whole-herd feed efficiency will also increase with higher milk production.

6. Heifer survival rate

The highest-profit herds averaged a heifer survival rate of 95%. If you are not approaching this goal, work to identify the bottlenecks in the system. The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s Gold Standards can be used to set benchmarks, evaluate your operation and prioritize tasks to improve your heifer survival rate.

Keep close tabs on the quality and timing of colostrum feedings, record heifer health events, and track growth rates over time. Bodyweight at breeding should be 55% to 60% of mature bodyweight, and heifers should freshen at 85% of mature bodyweight. Performance of weaned heifers can be impacted by resting space, feedbunk space, water space and ventilation. Not achieving these benchmarks can keep your heifers from reaching their production potential, which may lead to early culling.

Track and analyze data easily

I like the saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Your farm’s data is of no value if it sits in the computer, a spreadsheet or a notebook and is never reviewed. Track and organize your data in a way that is easiest for you to frequently review it and make management decisions accordingly. Your farm’s vendors may be able to help you in this task. For example, at Vita Plus, we have programs to help farms monitor and track their information over time.

It helps to be able to set individual goals on each metric. On-farm changes can be monitored for success by looking at how the metrics change month-to-month and year-to-year. These types of programs can be instrumental to success by helping you understand exactly what is happening on the farm. Intentional data collection and interpretation of that data can help you increase the long-term efficiency and profitability of your business.  end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

Mark Case
  • Mark Case

  • Dairy Specialist
  • Vita Plus
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