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Maximizing profit through proactive herd health management

Ximena del Campo for Progressive Dairyman Published on 07 August 2017

It’s no secret managing the transition period (three weeks before and three weeks after parturition) is a critical determinant of productivity and profitability on the dairy farm. During this time frame, animals have large abrupt variations inside and outside their bodies.

Many struggle to adapt to these changes. Major metabolic, physiological, nutritional changes are occurring as the cow shifts from a gestational non-lactating state to one of milk production. There is a great increase in nutrient requirements and energy to maintain its milk production. The cow will also experience ration changes (usually four) and new social settings.



All these stressors will cause havoc and affect peak milk yield. Peak milk, or the highest recorded test-day milk production in the first 150 days in milk, is your report card of how well the animal was managed and fed during that transition period.

The highest production usually occurs six to eight weeks into lactation, and it will determine the milk yield of the entire lactation. Clinical diseases associated with nutritional management like milk fever, ketosis, fatty liver syndrome, retained placenta, metritis, displaced abomasum and lameness are very costly and impact peak milk production.

Higher milk peaks lead to profitability

As mentioned earlier, peak production will determine the milk yield for the entire lactation. The cow will reach its highest production between six and eight weeks into lactation. It is well documented higher-producing cows take longer to get to their peak.

The persistency of each month’s yield is usually about 95 percent of the previous month, and this will be determined by their peak production and, of course, nutrition and management practices.

Research has also shown an additional pound of peak milk usually means 200 to 250 pounds of supplementary milk over the entire lactation. Producers know during this time the demand for energy is higher than what is being consumed. In other words, milk yield increases at a faster rate than dry matter intake, causing the cow to mobilize body reserves and lose weight.


It is during this time the animal will express its genetic potential. Energy intake has to be high enough to prevent cows from losing too much body condition. Supplying the rumen microbes with the right balance of dietary needs will determine the efficiency of feed conversion to milk.

Are you disappointed with milk cow performance?

If you are unhappy with current production performance, it is always a good idea to take a step back and do a holistic review of your dry cow program. There are certain questions that are a good starting point for discussion around the merits/demerits of the current program. Is the current plan overfeeding energy or not feeding enough? How much body condition have the cows gained or lost?

A reasonable place to start is by analyzing your DHIA records. Examine the TMR and forage reports; do they match what you see out in the pens? Good nutrition and management will significantly affect postpartum health and performance, so take a close look at your prepartum and postpartum rations.

Monitoring dry matter intake is a good idea; it is influenced by a wide variety of factors including forage quantity and quality, digestibility, feeding frequency, level of production, to name just a few. If there is a need, another source of information is evaluating the animal’s manure; this can provide you and the nutritionist with information about health and performance. (It’s not an exact science, but it can give you some clues of what might be going wrong.)

Since hygiene is key, animals should always be housed in a clean environment and have proper resting areas, as well as enough space at feedbunks and watering troughs. Keeping an eye on overcrowding is important in making sure they are comfortable. Maximizing intake of a well-balanced ration will have a direct impact on peak milk production.

Creating a feed management standard operating procedure and goals will help provide guidance to your feeding team (especially across shift work). In order to analyze and improve, it is important to record time and frequency of feedings, push-up times, feed consistency, amount of feed, refusals, sorting, etc.


Understanding the cows’ feeding behavior and environment can provide you with an insight as to where adjustments can be made. Non-dietary factors can be the culprit of a low milk yield, which could be easily solved with proper personnel training. Remember, cows also eat at night.

Health issues

Continual and comprehensive monitoring is key to reducing the prevalence of metabolic disorders and associated production diseases. According to one study, about 30 percent to 50 percent of dairy cows are affected by some type of metabolic or infectious disease around the time of parturition and, to make things a bit more complicated, subclinical metabolic disorders are very hard to detect.

These will, in turn, compromise production, reproduction and health of the cow, decreasing profitability and increasing the probability of culling animals.

Predicting problems before they appear in close-up cows is imperative. Take a close look at body condition, blood calcium and ketone concentration, feed intake, etc. It might help to identify cows that have had previous health or metabolic problems, as they are likely to be repeat offenders.

It has become easier using some of the new technological tools (from biomarkers to DHI milk samples that evaluate ketosis prevalence monthly) and research findings that can help you manage your transition cows.

New technologies

New technologies are enabling farmers to make better decisions thanks to the great amount of data that can be collected. Utilizing this data can help improve production, health and help the animal (and you) become more efficient overall.

For example, milk yield recording systems can provide you with trends in milk production and components. It can also help you detect any changes in the animal’s routine that could potentially show health issues due to changes in feed intake.

Activity monitors are also another way of detecting abnormal activity changes. These could also be early warning signals of illness or infection, allowing you to treat the animal more quickly. It’s also a good tool for breeding and at the time of calving, as it can help detect both.

These are only two examples of technology readily available in the marketplace. They are not meant to replace good management practices, but to enhance them.

As in life, it’s all a balancing act. It’s important to know the overall cost structure of your operations. Feed costs, labor and replacement costs are the biggest items in a farm. Understanding them and controlling them will make operations more profitable.

It will also help in better and faster decision-making where you might have to make tradeoffs. The adjustments will result in maximizing the economic returns in your dairy by optimizing rations and best management practices. Finding the right balance for optimal feed efficiency and milk production is the goal because, at the end of the day, the most important thing that matters is whether your dairy is generating or losing profit.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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