Managing dairies through tough times

While dairies re-evaluate costs and protocols, including dry cow programs, fresh cow health is always tops. “Even though we’re all trying to reduce milk in the last 100 days right now, I want you all to increase milk in her first 100 days of lactation,” said Dr. Gordie Jones recently during a ‘Managing Dairies through a Crisis‘ zoom conference offered publicly by Alta Genetics via dairylearning.com.

Jones spoke from personal experience as a partner in Central Sands Dairy, Wisconsin and in working with herds all over the world during the lively exchange with over 150 attendees from 44 countries.

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“A 60% forage and 40% concentrate ration is where you want to be,” he said. “Cut it young with low NDF and higher quality to put together a 60/40 ration.”

Jones also suggested the goldilocks low energy / high fiber diet for late lactation cows to slow production.

Goldilocks diet

“The best and quickest way to slow down milk in the last 100 days of lactation is the goldilocks diet,” he pointed out. “They’ll be healthy and full, but production will be down.”

For those drying cows off early, Jones didn’t seem bothered by dry period length. “You can dry off early if you feed the right ration — the ‘goldilocks’ controlled-energy diet,” he said.

As for step-up transition and fresh diets, Jones said they aren’t needed when cows get the goldilocks diet in the dry period. “In this diet, she eats to the energy level she needs. By holding the energy down… she fills up on dry matter, and when she freshens, she wants to eat a lot,” said Jones, explaining that this means there is no need to increase the energy in the diet the last three weeks of the dry period.

He advised reducing protein in the far-off ration. “The protein we need is going to come from the volume she eats,” said Jones. “The far-off dry cow does not need that protein, the trick is to not add starch, so she eats to what she needs.”

Answering questions, Jones confirmed that straw cannot be replaced by hay in the diet. “You need that effective NDF. I want that last pound and a half of fiber to always be straw,” he said. “This creates rumen mat, rate of passage, more chewing and more saliva.”

Tighten feed management

Referring to a graphic from Dr. Mike Hutjens, Jones talked about evaluating ration additives by the 4 R’s — economic return, available research, anticipated response, field results. He added a fifth R, re-check pricing on all ingredients. “Things have changed. DDGs are out of the market, what else is out there?”

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To control incremental costs, he said, tighten bunk management, keep feeding for refusals and make sure they are being used to feed other animals, Jones said: “Get tighter on feed management, recheck scales and mixing protocols to avoid overfeeding high cost ingredients, and manage the bunker face for less waste.”

Milking and workforce

On the topic of going from 3x to 2x milking, Jones said this is something producers can do well to curtail production, “but do it on the second half lactation herd, not the whole herd,” he advised.

When making this decision for mid to late lactation cows, Jones said dairy managers should be aware of human nature to slow down in the parlor. This steals time away from the cows for eating and sleeping, he said.

“Just realize, you are not going to save labor. They are all at the dairy and need a job,” said Jones, suggesting that producers reassure employees as team members that they are “hugely important” and that they will have work, and remind them that the normal pace in the parlor is for the health of the cows to ensure they have 20 hours a day for eating and resting.

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In addition to social distancing and a focus on employee health, Jones advised having workers who are on the same shift living in the same house, instead of having workers from different shifts living together. “That way if something happens, you have the shift together,” he said.

Feeding milk

Getting questions about other uses for over-base milk, he touched on feeding it. Jones sees dairies successfully feeding 3 to 4 pounds of milk on a dry matter basis back to cows as part of a balanced diet. The whey protein and lactose and fat (energy) in milk can help save costs, but don’t overdo it.

Another option is to consider a more aggressive calf-feeding program with the extra milk to get strong average daily gains, but do it as a planned long term investment. The return on this use of the milk won’t be realized until those calves are milk cows.

Keep breeding the cows

As for repro, Jones stressed that when cash flow is hurt, make economic decisions, “but keep breeding the cows. You still need your cows to be pregnant.”

Culling vs. production and equity

On the culling side, what he has learned through three dairy diversion programs over the years is that culling is not a straight line to lower milk production. “You can’t just cull your way there,” he said, adding that as we learn more about cow comfort and overcrowding, herds will often increase in milk after a 10 to 15% culling reduction, especially if they were overcrowded.

“One thing to watch is culling too heavy can put you at financial risk,” said Jones. “Cow value is what the lender looks at on your dairy. Keep an eye on what culling does to debt per cow and the bank’s equity position. Your cows are your collateral.”

Jones believes voluntary culling should always be aimed at keeping the best players on the team every day, not so much to reduce milk production.

On the flip side of culling, and coming back into production on the other side of this deal, Jones observed: “There have been times, and we are close to that right now, where heifers are so cheap, we could buy nothing but heifers. Their persistence is wonderful.

“You have to do the math, if you get enough for beef and the heifers are cheap enough, that’s an option.”

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Getting to the upside

On the upside of the down-curve as milk supplies tighten and when more milk is eventually needed, Jones said the fast ways to more milk are always the same: Cow comfort, stall size and beds, reducing heat stress, fixing the ration and delivering the ration.

If producers were looking at facility improvements, cow comfort investments, even growth — pre-COVID — he advised taking the time now to do the research and build a plan to keep the dairy moving forward.

Milk quality also has its benefits in the cash flow equation, according to Jones’ charts. Not only is low-SCC milk a sizable slice on his pie chart of factors that improve milk per cow, it also indicates healthy udders for reduced health and labor costs associated with mastitis, as well as some level of quality premium.

“It’s time right now for us to tighten our management. As I see people getting tighter on management, sharpening pencils, re-evaluating, we have a chance to make our dairies better as businesses,” he said.

“Dairy farming run as a business is a great way of life.”

(Serving as the host for the Alta Genetics webinar with Dr. Jones was dairylearning.com, a progressive dairy education hub with online course content on a variety of topics  and in several languages, allowing dairy managers and their teams to learn when it suits their schedules.)

— By Sherry Bunting

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