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Precision dairy management and what it means for your herd

Kristi Fiedler for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 February 2016

Precision agriculture is a term often used to describe crop management – but in a recent Progressive Dairyman article, Robert Fourdraine, vice president of research and development for Cooperative Resources International, described dairy management with the same term.

New and improving technologies such as robotic milking systems, robotic calf feeders, reproduction programs, activity and rumination monitoring systems, feed trackers and genomics have given dairy farmers a never-ending array of options for precision management.

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It’s hard to believe that timed-A.I. programs were published 20 years ago already. In 1995, the original Ovsynch model was published. Since then, timed A.I. has transformed to 56-hour Presynch (2001), double Ovsynch (2008) and several variations of Resynch.

In addition to improved reproduction efficiency through synchronization programs, farms have introduced best practices in animal handling, facility design, pen management, milking procedures and much more.

All these advancements have led to a desirable but potentially burdening situation for some dairy farms: Pregnancy rates no longer hover in the mid-teens but instead the mid-20s. Dairies are faced with more replacements than necessary to maintain their herd size.

What are the options for a producer in this situation?

1. Cull from the milking herd. This was a more viable option when farms had a lot of cull-worthy cows. Since cull cow prices have been high for the last few years, many dairies have already exhausted this option to the point of reduced marginal returns.

Replacing older milk cows with young heifers isn’t always the most profitable because older cows have already paid back their raising cost and are now the “icing on the cake” after maintenance costs are covered.

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2. Cull heifers. This may be a feasible option, especially for herds with low health issues and death loss in their heifer-rearing program. Those heifers will be sought after by producers who trust the calves were raised well. This option needs to be monitored as heifer prices vary. It is important to know your raising cost in order to sell for a profit.

3. Produce fewer heifer calves. This option incorporates a breeding strategy using several types of semen: conventional, sexed and beef. Beef-on-dairy calves have been selling at all-time highs. During a recent trip to the Southeast, one dairy producer shared he was receiving $500 for Limousin/Holstein-cross calves.

Options 1 and 2 described above are likely still going to cause strain on heifer management if the bottleneck is overcrowding in the heifer-rearing facilities. Although any of the options may work depending on the individual farm situation, the best solution for some farms may be a combination of all three.

Methods of precision management

Now that some options have been identified for dairies that have more replacements than necessary, how do those producers go about making decisions regarding which animals to cull or how to best incorporate a breeding strategy?

Universities, cooperatives and private companies have developed several tools to help producers benchmark their current performance and monitor progress toward goals. Many also have created tools to help producers develop effective and profitable breeding strategies.

Among the first steps in developing a breeding strategy is to establish goals. These goals for each dairy are based on the number of calves needed and the genetic quality desired, as well as current and forecasted economic opportunities.

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Next, producers must determine the most effective combination of culling or various semen products (conventional semen, sexed semen or beef semen) to attain those goals. Whether deciding which animals to cull or which to breed to a specific semen product, the females must be ranked.

Think of this as the females’ career assessment. Each cow and heifer is evaluated based on genomic data, pedigree information or on-farm performance data. Then producers sort the females and choose a career path for each one.

That career path may mean producing beef-on-dairy-cross calves for a secondary profit stream. Or it may mean the female will be bred with the highest-genetic-merit sexed semen in an effort to produce a profitable dairy replacement animal.

When using precision agriculture tools to sort females, it is important to remember there is not a perfect predictor for genetic opportunity; however, understanding the risks of each choice is essential to making sound business decisions.

For instance, sorting animals based on genomic information is the most accurate (84 percent accuracy), while pedigree data is 62 percent.

A big advantage to genomic data is that genomic testing allows for parentage mistakes to be corrected, and pedigree sorting is only as good as the data recorded. Finally, performance data is valuable, but it is only one cow’s performance compared to her herdmates.

That cow’s performance can be affected by events such as illness. In all, genomic data for cows and heifers is the ideal tool due to accuracy and parentage identification.

The time for precision management

Improving genetics is not just a sire-based strategy any more. With precision management, the door has opened for genetic improvement through females, too. Use high-genetic-merit sires (in sexed and conventional semen) on the top females and use beef semen on the lower-genetic-merit females.

This strategy eliminates bottom-end genetics in the herd and produces replacements from the herd’s best animals while generating additional revenue in beef-cross calves.  PD

Kristi Fiedler is an associate vice president of U.S. technical services with Genex Cooperative Inc. Email Kristi Fiedler.

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