​Genetic choices in cattle, crops lead to impressive results

Ray Mueller

Waldo – Genetics are for real. That's the premise of dairy farm management for the 111 cows who hold the distinction of having the highest milk production rolling herd average in the United States.

The point about genetics applies not only to selections for dairy cattle but just as much to alfalfa varieties and corn hybrids, Ever-Green-View dairy farm co-owner Tom Kestell told members in a presentation at the 2017 annual meeting of the Sheboygan County Forage Council.

Kestell, who confessed to not being “a techie,” emphasized that the top level production achievement is a not a goal in itself but rather the reward of a management approach based on notions such as “almost doesn't work” and “almost doesn't count.”

Asked to what he attributes the nearly 10,000 pound per year milk production spread between Ever-Green-View and other dairy operations with high numbers, Kestell attributed 80 percent of it to a combination of the three genetic sources along with feeding and housing practices on the south central Sheboygan County farm that he has operated for more than 40 years with his wife Gin and more recently with the inclusion of his son Chris and wife Jennifer.

Another standard of success that Kestell described is having the farm being viewed by everyone involved as “a happy place to work” for the people and for the cattle to be.

Milk production statistics

As of October 2016, the rolling herd average at Ever-Green-View was 43,320 pounds of milk, according to official testing by AgSource's Dairy Herd Improvement Association. Kestell said that the herd is only one for which a test is taken for all three of the day's milkings.

For the most recent monthly test, the 111 cows were producing an average of 134 pounds of milk per day, Kestell stated. He mentioned individual cows producing 212 pounds of milk per day, a two year-old still at 135 pounds at 365 days into her first lactation, a four year-old with a lactation production of 68,000 pounds of milk, and a cow with the nation's high of more than 3,600 pounds of butterfat in a single lactation.

Ever-Green-View earned national recognition in 2009 when one of its cows set a 365-day lactation milk production record of 72,170 pounds – a number that has since been surpassed. Kestell pointed out that all of the cows are kept in tie-stalls with no one being given any special accommodations because of milk production achievements.

Working the numbers

Kestell traced today's achievements to what he noticed, questioned, and learned early in life and has been able to apply. In earlier years, he frequently weighed all of the milk produced by each cow.

That practice led him to apply management practices geared to individual cows – in effect managing from a perspective of a herd consisting of one cow, one heifer, and one calf. That's quite different from approaching the task as a group venture, Kestell said.

From an agriculture class he took in high school, Kestell recalled an insight made by the teacher. It was that dairy herds had too many loser cows, that the bottom third offset the middle third on economics, and that only the top third were providing an economic return. Kestell's lesson from that was it that was worth caring for and milking only cows that would perform at that top one-third standard.

Another practice which Kestell questioned in his early years was the storage of oats in a granary, bagging some of it for trips to the feed mill, and paying for a service that didn't appear to justify the cost.

Sharing the credit

After noting that dairy cows of colored breeds were first brought to the United States from the British Isles, starting in 1604, Kestell pointed out that it wasn't until the 1860s that about 8,000 Holstein-Friesians – “the best cows in the world at the time” – were imported from Holland.

At about the same time, the land grant colleges were being established, quickly becoming centers of research and education that provided great advancements for agriculture, Kestell remarked. “I really credit these people from the 1850s and 1860s.”

With the help of hybrid corn and new alfalfa varieties that were introduced within the past century, a gallon of milk can be produced today with the equivalent of only 10 percent of the land, 21 percent of the animals, and 23 percent of the feed that was required in 1940, Kestell indicated.

The introduction of vertical silos was another advance, Kestell continued. As a result, molasses was no longer needed as a sugary supplement to alfalfa to induce good fermentation and fermented feeds were available all year, he noted.

Dairy cattle breeding

The wide dispersal of the dairy cattle genetics, which began with the cattle imported from Holland some 150 years ago was aided by great support from John Rockefeller Prentice, a grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Kestell observed.

Prentice was an avid supporter of artificial insemination to improve dairy cattle genetics, Kestell stated. He explained that Prentice's efforts led to the 1937 introduction of fresh semen, which was dropped from airplanes at distribution centers and to the development of frozen semen, from which the first calf was born in 1953.

Kestell also cited the contribution by Bob Walton, who was a prime mover in the formation of the American Breeders Service company. He said Walton “led a revolution” in the breeding of dairy cattle.

In the development of bulls as sires, success is defined as finding 1 in 10 of them being acceptable, Kestell observed. But with heifers, he considers 100 percent to be the only acceptable number.

Ever-Green-View genetics

In his own approach to dairy breeding, Kestell relies on the genetics of cow families. He is dismayed by the recent push toward genomic selection, saying it is being promoted as a moneymaker for the breeding organizations while suffering the loss of bull pedigrees and of focus on production traits in favor of type.

As evidence that the recent trend in dairy genetics is not working, Kestell pointed to the minimal increases in average milk production per cow in recent years, leaving the nation's milk production average per cow at about 23,000 pounds a year. “Something is wrong,” he declared.

In addition to home-bred herd on the farm, Ever-Green-View has reached across the world to share its genetics. This is done with the sales of bulls, females, and embryos to buyers in many countries. In any given year, two-thirds to three-fourths of the farm's income is from export sales.

Among the specifics that Kestell mentioned are a sales outlet to China for 30 years, a four-year connection with a billionaire owner of herds of 1,300 and 2,200 cows in Russia, the sale of up to 3,000 embryos per year, breeding of the Red and White “Snowman” bull (the world leader for milk and protein production among offspring), and the recent sales of 100 bulls to a buyer in Kansas and of 11 bulls to a southern Wisconsin group of Amish buyers, whom he described as very well informed on dairy genetics.

Kestell prefers mature dairy cows at a height of 56 to 57 inches with excellent udder formation. With dairy cattle and all other aspects of their care, he advises identifying and “attacking the weakness link on the farm” and strengthening it.

Starting With calf care

The Kestells emphasize the individuality of their cattle, starting by naming all of the calves and putting up a name sign – a practice that Kestell believes adds to their sales value. To get them off to a great start, they're fed pasteurized whole milk until weaning at two months of age and are housed in a greenhouse “bubble barn.”

Of the some 4,000 calves that have been raised there in 22 years , Kestell said that the mortality is limited to about .5 percent and cases of pneumonia are rare. The calves are then moved to a relatively new heifer barn, where they are introduced to baleage rather than to dry hay because of the difficulty in making dry hay in the area without having it rained on, he pointed out.

Cropping practices

Keeping the leaves in the harvested forage is another reason to de-emphasize dry hay, Kestell stated. He noted that large round bales, of which more than 1,300 were made in 2016 at about 50 to 55 percent moisture, preserve better than the large rectangular bales.

Regarding forage quality, Kestell prefers a relative feed quality of less than 150 rather than one of 160 if it has been rained on. When making small rectangular bales (nearly 4,000 in 2016), he said preservatives might be necessary when baling because of the micro-climate that nearby Lake Michigan can suddenly create.

For the alfalfa harvest, Kestell's bottom line is to avoid having rain fall on it after it is cut. By carefully monitoring weather forecasts and by engaging in a rapid harvest with three haybines plus a new rotary disk cutter to help with the heavy volume of the first cutting, he said he seldom fails to meet the no-rain goal. Having rain fall on cut alfalfa leaches its vital nutrients, he explained.

Kestell described 2016 as an “exceptional year” for growing forages. He noted that one field in which alfalfa was seeded with an oats and peas cover crop provided three cuttings of alfalfa during the 2nd half of the growing season.

Milk to feed ratios

Alfalfa varieties from Dairyland Seeds along with Mycogen brown mid-rib silage corn have the genetics that please Kestell. He noted that taking a higher cut from the corn while making shredlage in 2016 boosted the starch content to 40 percent compared to 26 percent in the past, thereby providing another ingredient to enhance milk production.

In a dairy herd ration with 68 percent forage and a fairly low portion of shelled corn, Kestell pointed out that the result is a milk production ratio of more than two pounds per one pound of dry matter feed intake. With other top producing dairy herds, that ratio is most often between 1.5 and 1.8 to 1. In a single group ration, the daily dry matter totals per cow at Ever-Green-View are about 30 pounds of corn silage, 25 of haylage, and 12 of shelled corn.

Not having cows falling victim to a variety of health problems is another key to maintaining record levels of milk production per lactation. Putting close-up cows on the milking herd ration at seven days before their projected calving date has translated into not having any case of displaced abomasum for nine years and no case of milk fever for 25 years, Kestell stated.

With a colony of seven upright silos on the farm, including the most recently constructed 20 by 90 foot unit for silage, Kestell extols the ability to have fermented feeds suitable for the several cattle groups. Having flexibility contributes greatly to providing the cattle with the consistency that's very important to their growth, health, and production, he explained.

Heifer rations, which include haylage and chopped corn stalks that were harvested at about 50 percent moisture after the stalklage was taken, are designed for 17 percent protein. With the alfalfa having up to 24 percent protein, thanks to the efforts to save the leaves, the heavy portion of forage in the ration for the lactating cows is sufficient with 15.9 to 16.2 percent protein.

Looking ahead

Reflecting after 41 years on the farm that he acquired in rundown condition at a public auction in 1975, Kestell has observed a lot of changes and been responsible in part for some of them. He predicts that “dramatic changes will continue.”

Among them, Kestell is wary of the likelihood of “a new era of challenges.” He mentioned the efforts to eliminate both the use of Posilac and the practice of tail-docking and wonders if that mindset might even evolve into calls to put “a limit on the number of alfalfa cuttings so not to hurt its feelings.”

Silos and the calf greenhouse in the foreground are integral parts at Ever-Green-View dairy farm near Waldo in south central Sheboygan County.
Tom Kestell