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What should you look for in a herd summary report?

Jenna Guinn and Jeffrey Bewley for Progressive Dairy Published on 24 February 2021

In a time filled with new ways to look at data, it’s easy to fall into a space of data overload. On dairy farms, there are several data management software programs to choose from, with multiple ways to look at hundreds of metrics on your farm.

It can be overwhelming – and ultimately, it’s easier to just look at the same few metrics over and over. This can be helpful but isn’t the best way to maximize the use of the data available right at your fingertips.

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If there were an ideal herd summary report, what would it look like? Most would choose the metrics they are most interested in, whether it be reproduction or genetics of the herd, while others would choose to look at categories where they are having issues, such as milk quality or milk and component metrics because that’s what they get paid on. It would be different for everyone. To optimize the use of data, it would be ideal to have a summary report that covers the most important metrics for each of those categories; that way things you wouldn’t normally look at don’t get overlooked and an opportunity for improvement of your bottom line isn’t lost.

Here are a few herd management guidelines and important metrics to consider when viewing or creating a herd summary report.

  • Set KPIs for your herd. Examples of important KPIs to monitor include:

o Pounds of fat plus protein, which provides an indication of milk yield level and accounts for most farms being paid for components yield rather than just milk yield.

o Somatic cell count (SCC) gives an indication of overall milk quality and level of subclinical mastitis in the herd, also helping farms who are paid bonuses for low SCC.

o Annual pregnancy rate is an indication of overall reproductive efficiency, representing the percentage of eligible cows that become pregnant within a 21-day window. This reflects both conception rate and service rate.

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o Culling rate during the first 60 days in milk, which is a good indication of transition cow management and economic efficiency. Top herds maintain this metric at less than 5% of freshenings. These specific metrics are drivers for profitability on all dairy farms.

Start by focusing on categories where there is opportunity to improve or you’ve seen a decline since the last month. Detecting issues earlier may reduce costs to treat or intervene, getting you back on track quicker. Keeping this in mind, make sure to monitor all management areas of your dairy farm. This should include categories such as:

  • Herd demographics including metrics such as number of milking, dry and pregnant cows, and number/percentage of fresh cows and cows in each lactation. Keeping track of cows that have freshened in the last 60 days is a good indicator of the number of animals that will be at peak milk yield soon. The percentage of first-lactation cows is important to track because exceeding 30% to 35% may limit milk production of the herd, since first-lactation cows do not produce as much as mature cows. Additionally, the percentage of third-plus-lactation cows reflects how well a herd can maintain cows long enough to achieve mature milk production levels – meaning the higher number, the better.

  • Milk and component yield-containing metrics that are likely already being monitored consistently such as average days in milk, milk production, rolling herd average and component yield. Others that might be more informative and unique include longevity-corrected, energy-corrected milk where energy-corrected milk is averaged for first-, second- and third-plus-lactation groups and are used to adjust the herd as if the distribution were 30% first lactation, 20% second lactation and 50% third-plus lactation, providing a way to examine the herd’s milk production potential if cows remained in the herd longer.

    Another informative way of looking at milk production data is looking at week four and week eight milk by lactation group. Week four milk is a good indication of startup milk, or how quickly cows start milking well in early lactation. Week eight milk is a good indicator of peak milk yield, controlling for the desired timing of peak milk.

  • Summer-winter ratios are another unique metric, established by researchers in Israel and provided on monthly reports for farms in their region. They are used to assess the degree of heat stress in a herd and can be calculated in terms of milk production, reproductive measures such as pregnancy rate, component yield and SCC by dividing the summer average by the winter average. The closer the ratio is to 1, the better the herd is at managing heat stress. Values between 0.95 and 1.00 indicated minimal decrease in performance during the summer, except for SCC, where a range between 1.00 and 1.05 is desired to indicate a minimal increase in summer SCC.

  • Reproduction metrics to monitor include days to first service, with a target of within 10 days of the herd’s voluntary waiting period. Higher numbers may indicate challenges with heat detection or enrollment of cows into a synchronization program. The sooner cows are inseminated after calving, the sooner they can return to peak lactation in their next lactation. More important reproduction metrics to monitor are annual conception rates and conception rates in the last 60 days, as well as conception rates by service and lactation, which are highest for first services and first-lactation cows, and lowest for third-plus services and third-plus-lactation cows.

  • Culling and health metrics should look at cows culled in the first 60 days in milk, cow death rate, average age at exit and also culling reasons such as percentage milk fever (less than 2%), percentage retained placenta (less than 5%), percentage metritis (less than 5%), percentage displaced abomasum (less than 2%), percentage ketosis (less than 2%), percentage clinical mastitis (less than 2%), percentage lameness (less than 10%) and percentage respiratory (less than 1%). If numbers in your herd exceed these targets, consider working with your veterinarians and nutritionists to develop prevention and treatment plans.

  • Calves and heifers should be managed closely by looking at metrics such as heifer and bull calf dead-on-arrival (DOA) rate, with a target of 5% or less. Heifer age at conception, and age at first calving are also important to keep a close eye on. Calf deaths and heifer culls are a good indication of management and are vital for the growth of your herd.

  • Milk quality metrics affect a herd’s bottom line, as most markets pay bonuses for low SCC. To monitor milk quality, a herd summary report should include metrics such as percentage of cows with SCC greater than 200 (1,000 cells per milliliter), percentage fresh cows with SCC greater than 200, percentage of herd with chronic or new mastitis infections and percentage of cows with chronic or new infections in the dry period. Chronic infections are indicated when cows have a SCC greater than 200 for two consecutive test days, and knowing whether cows are coming in from the dry period with mastitis is helpful in making management decisions to prevent further cases and spread.

Lastly, work with your nutritionists and consultants to walk through data you are unfamiliar with, set goals to see how your herd is performing compared to herds nearby, and find or create a herd summary report right for your needs, remembering to always look at the big picture.  end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

Dr. Jeffrey Bewley is an analytics and innovation scientist for Holstein USA. Email Jeffrey Bewley

Jenna Guinn

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