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How a 100-pound Holstein herd averages 7 pounds combined fat and protein

Erica Louder for Progressive Dairyman Published on 25 April 2018
Kunkel family

The term “successful” can be pretty subjective in its application, but many would argue that the term should be applied to TKunkel Dairy Farms LLC of Cuba City, Wisconsin.

One wouldn’t have to look further than their milk production, but their statistical strength goes well beyond production – components, a low somatic cell count and milk solids all point toward the word. But dairyman Tom Kunkel isn’t convinced they have reached their peak. He is still shooting for the magic word “success” with even higher goals.

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In the last 12 months, this 220-cow dairy has averaged component levels of 4.1 percent fat and 3.1 percent protein, and 100 pounds of milk per cow. They achieved this all while maintaining a somatic cell count average of 113,000. Many would say those are impressive numbers, but for Tom, his daughter Abby and his father, Norman, the three generations of Kunkels are just doing what they do best.

Abby attributes their success with components and production to sticking to the basics. She says, “I think running a successful dairy is about doing the basics well. We focus on nutrition, cow comfort, good milking techniques, proper reproduction and strong genetics.”

Tom adds, “Cows are boring creatures. They like the same thing at the same time. Consistency is key.”

1. Nutrition and quality feed

“One advantage to our operation is that we have enough farm ground to grow most of our own feed,” Tom says. “Of course, we have to work around Mother Nature, but we focus on our soil, and our crops generally return haylage and silage we can count on.”

Tom realizes that the foundation of a good nutrition program starts with the forage program. It’s no surprise that the objectives are high, specific and measurable. The goal is 180-plus relative feed quality (RFQ) haylage at the correct moisture and a low ash content. Haylage and corn silage are chopped at a 0.75-inch theoretical cut. Close attention is paid to both kernel processing and moisture content of the corn silage to ensure optimum starch digestibility.

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Once the feed is chopped, their attention changes to focus on packing, storage and correct feedout to ensure that clean, mold-free feed is delivered to the cows. The ultimate goal is being able to produce more than 7 pounds of combined fat and protein per cow per day on a high forage diet that is at least 60 percent forage.

Part of quality feed for the Kunkels is relying on the support of a strong advisory team, first working with their agronomist to grow the right feed and then their nutritionist, Roger Hoppenjan from Premier Cooperative, for advice on balancing that ration. And as far as the ration is concerned, again, Tom says they stick to the basics – quality corn silage, quality haylage, fine-ground corn and a protein mix. They also pay attention to a consistent amino acid and carbohydrate balance in the ration, particularly lysine and methionine, which Tom says “has really shown its worth when it comes to production.”

2. Cow comfort

When asked which is more important, nutrition or cow comfort, both Tom and Abby agree the two factors are of equal importance. “These cows are working hard for us. We try to make their life as good as possible, and that means paying attention to their comfort,” Tom says.

Their cows have regular hoof trimming, footbaths biweekly, fresh sand in the stalls every week and no more than 10 percent overcrowding. Abby says, “We need our cows to want to walk to the feedbunk and want to walk to the parlor. We need to make that easy for them.” When the cows get to the parlor, the Kunkels focus on low stress: there is no yelling and no loud music in the parlor. Tom says, “They need a calm environment to let down milk – we try to make sure that environment happens.”

3. Proper milking techniques

Like cow comfort, proper milking techniques come down to consistency. Abby says, “We milk three times a day, and we start each milking at the same time every day. Not 15 minutes late, not 15 minutes early. It’s the same way and the same time, every time.”

Like the advisory team that helps prepare a proper ration, the Kunkels rely on a team to maintain proper milking protocols. That team is their employees. Tom says, “All of us in the industry know how hard retaining good employees can be. We are fortunate to have a core set of employees that have worked for us for 10 and 12 years. These long-term employees have played a huge role in our success.” Abby adds, “It’s definitely a team effort.”

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4. Focus on reproduction

Few would argue against the need for good reproduction when it comes to maintaining high production, but reproduction and production often seem to work against each other. The Kunkels try maintaining protocols to ensure that isn’t the case on their dairy. They shoot for a first-service conception rate of at least 35 percent, and for the last year, that number has been 38 percent.

Tom attributes a lot of that success to bimonthly herd checks. Each cow is checked via ultrasound by their veterinarian at 30 days post-calving to prepare them for breeding at 60 days in milk. Each cow also wears an activity monitor collar, which is used for heat detection and assessing cow health.

5. Genetics and genomics

Going hand in hand with reproduction is genetics, and the Kunkels have taken genetics a step further by embracing genomic testing. The genomic results are providing the blueprint for high production and strong components on their operation. While the Kunkels have always paid attention to the genetics of their animals, six years ago they began utilizing genomic testing to really hone in on the genetic potential. Today, every heifer calf is genomic tested and the bottom 20 percent are culled. Tom says the testing makes him look forward to the next generation of cows, saying, “It’s exciting to see the improvement each year.”

When it comes to bull selection, the dairy again relies on its advisory team. Norman embraced the use of A.I. breeding in 1960, and the dairy has used it ever since. Today the operation relies on a mating service to ensure superior matings. Between good matings and genomic testing, Tom says, “Our net merit herd average is 450 and up. And this year we have a couple cows with strong enough genomics to begin doing some embryo flushing.”

Abby adds, “We don’t plan on expanding in the near future. We want to get better before we get bigger, and genomics allows us to do just that.”

Future of the operation

Despite the current challenges in the industry, both Abby and Tom believe the future is bright and look forward to greater success. For an operation that has been around since 1954 and has three generations involved, success can be defined by more than just statistics.  end mark

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

PHOTO: Norman, Tom and Abby Kunkel represent three generations on their dairy farm near Cuba City, Wisconsin. The herd is achieving high components and milk production, averaging 100 pounds per cow per day with 7 pounds of combined fat and protein. Photo provided by Abby Kunkel.

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