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How to bring your dairy back to life

Harley Wagenseller Published on 16 March 2011
I have been asked twice in the last five years, “How do I turn my dairy around? How can I resurrect my farm from near death to a vibrant dairy that people look at and admire?”

What I did was break down these different areas of concern into several different categories.

• What condition are the milk cows in currently?
• What does our feed situation look like?
• How’s the health of all the cows?
• Are my dry cows and springing heifers in proper body condition?
• What’s the relationship with the neighbors like?
• Do we have the ability to be energy- efficient or not?
• How’s the financial situation?
• Has there been a management team “minding the store?” Or not?



What’s the current employee situation? Will you be able to keep the willing and able or will you have to trim the “dead weight” and “retool your workforce?”
• Do I want to invest the time and effort into this challenge?

Your goal, of course, should be to try and maximize your income on the cow side and simultaneously reduce your expenses. I will give you examples of how to do both.

Our first point was to start with the milk cows. If you have a way of recording milk production on each cow, this will help you tremendously. If you do not, then you will have to get creative in order to get this information.

If you have some kind of measuring device – DHIA “tubes,” Milk-O-Meter (remember these?) or computer-generated devices to record production, numbers will help you get a handle on a cow’s individual performance. If you don’t have these machines, perhaps you could “rent” them from a neighbor or your county extension agent could help you locate them.

The point is you have to have a starting point for knowing the herd’s milk production. You may find out that you’re feeding a group of cows a “high-group” ration, where 50 percent of them are not giving 25 lbs per day. What a waste of money!


How can you make needed changes unless you know whether cow #2882 is paying for her groceries or not? Do you have the ability to have two to four groups of cows? Perhaps after testing your cows you can analyze – wait just a minute – you don’t know their reproductive status yet?

That means scheduling the vet to come to the farm. Today there are generally many good reproductive dairy vets out there. I would probably break this down into palpating milk cows, dry cows and springers into a couple of visits – you will probably wear out your vet’s arm!

After knowing your herd’s production numbers and their reproductive status, now you can start making intelligent decisions based on real numbers.

If you have the option of having multiple groups, perhaps you could contemplate grouping cows like a fresh cow group, high-production group, first-lactation group, breeding group, low-production group, confirmed pregnant group, bull group, so many days in milk group, etc.

You may have to get creative in creating a group that meets your needs and space considerations in your barn. The possibilities exist for categorizing milk cows to assist your management dilemmas that you are trying to correct.

This is actually a position where you are aiding both your income side and your expense side at the same time.


By positioning your milk cows into the proper group, you will help the cows who are producing more get the high-group ration to make more milk and not have cows who are 200 days carrying calf and 350 days in milk continue eating the wrong diet.

All they may be doing is putting too much fat on their back and giving 28 lbs of milk per day. By putting all milk cows in one large group, you may be wasting too much money.

Possibly another group of cows who need more management would be your dry cows. Perhaps they are eating a proper diet for most of their dry period, but what about 21 days pre-partum?

Are they getting a close-up ration to help them transition and have a good next lactation or not? This is certainly money well spent, as the pages of this fine publication you are now reading has repeatedly pointed out.

Another area of concern will certainly be the feed situation on your dairy. Feed, as we know, is usually our single-largest expense on the dairy. As you are trying to dissect your financial issues, you need to consider this category very seriously.

Is your hay or silage the proper TDN, ADF, NDF, etc., to support milk production or a “vacationing” dry cow? Again, match your cows’ needs to their feeds. Don’t feed your high-group cows “broom straw” and then expect 80 lbs of milk per cow per day. It just won’t happen.

Are your cows receiving a proper vitamin/mineral package? Are their energy, carbohydrates, fat and protein needs met? A good nutritionist can really be a blessing to a sound financial future for your dairy.

Closely related to this are the people doing the feeding. As we know, there are three rations that are mixed. First is the one your nutritionist creates on paper; second is the one your feeder mixes and delivers; and third is the one your cows actually eat.

This brings us to the next biggest area of concern for the dairy, and that is the labor situation. Most farms are going to need some kind of help. Will it be family or outside hired labor? This can either be a source of great relief or a pain in your side.

With family as your work source, you have special considerations when you use them for milking, calf raising, etc. What about school activities such as ball games and other extracurricular areas?

You have to weigh out such things as “How will my son feel if I don’t give him the time to play basketball for three months his senior year of high school because I need him to do calf chores or hay feeding one hour a day after school?”

Just put it into perspective. If your son perceives that his dad is willing to tolerate a temporary absence for three months, he will likely be willing to really want to work full-time for the dairy in the near future after his education is complete.

What about hired labor? This can be a tricky situation. Perhaps you are in a situation like I was five years ago.

I was hired to manage a 600-cow dairy where leadership had been lacking. The first week on the job I began to see one of the glaring weaknesses of this dairy – the inmates were running the asylum! Every person working in the milk parlor was doing a different milking routine!

The man who was doing the feeding and taking care of the fresh cow pen was not stable in his time management. One day the feeding situation was 6 to 11 AM; the next day it was four hours behind the previous day; the next day it was a different time yet.

Sometimes it’s easy to say “Let’s fix the problem right now!” But as someone new on the job, you want to be sure you will make an intelligent decision to benefit the long-term health of the dairy.

Can we correct the problem with the personnel we currently have or will we have to make changes in this area also? We met with the gentleman who was doing the feeding and it turned out that his cranky girlfriend caused him to be so erratic, or so he claimed.

Later we found out that alcohol was 50 percent of the problem. We pointed out that we did not want 600 cranky four-legged girls either. He never got the point and terminated himself two days later.

We were able to get some help in the feeding situation when we found out that one of the milkers was very punctual. He did a great job temporarily. What were we going to do about the six other milkers who were all doing their own thing?

At lunch we outlined correct milking procedures and wanted them implemented immediately. We started our next milking shift at 1 PM and demonstrated correct procedures for the workers.

By the end of the second day of new procedures, two out of six walked off the job. No one said change was going to be easy.

I was fortunate to find two brothers who had the spirit of doing things correctly and on time. In two months we had completely turned over the whole labor force.

Our milk production in one year went from 700,000 lbs per worker per year to 1.3 million lbs per worker per year. What progress!

You have to have your workers “buy into” your vision before you can see results. If your dairy is to survive, your workers must believe you are serious and there is something in it for them.

Production numbers, both milk and reproductive, are vital to know if your dairy will begin to heal. Your feed situation will break you if you don’t get a handle on it now. Labor may be the key on your farm to staying in business.

In my next article we will consider issues like energy savings, good relations with the neighbors, and the importance of a good management team. PD

Harley Wagenseller
  • Harley Wagenseller

  • Dairy Manager
  • Blakes Landing Farms
  • Email Harley Wagenseller