Dairy producers: tips for profitable practices

Wisconsin State Farmer
Dr. Mike Hutjens, a dairy extension specialist, led a number of sessions at the Professional Dairy Producers Conference in Madison, held March 14-15, 2018.

MADISON - What can a dairy farmer do to make a buck? Things are changing, but there are opportunities out there.

Dr. Mike Hutjens, dairy extension specialist, explored five "must do" points in 2018 and five things producers should "not do," during the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin 2018 Business Conference on March 14.

Looking at dairy's changing economics with Class III milk prices at $13.80/cwt in February, milk fat worth $2.35 per pound and milk protein worth $1.63 per pound, last month, Hutjens thinks milk protein is going to increase. 

"Just give it some time and it will come back," Hutjens said. "I think that's what the world wants, milk protein."

Selz-Pralle Aftershock 3918 is the new national milk production record holder for the Holstein breed.

A slide showed Selz-Pralle Aftershock 3918, a Holstein who achieved a 365-day production record of more than 78,000 pounds of milk with more than 3,000 pounds of fat and 2,300 pounds of protein. 

"Look at her components," Hutjens pointed out. " Not only does she produce a lot of milk, it's got a lot of components in it. Look at the value. ... So that's how you make a buck. You get a whole barn full of these suckers."

Short of acquiring a herd of record breaking dairy cows, Hutjens provided producers with tools and guidelines for coming out ahead in today's challenging dairy economic environment.

Five must do items for 2018

1. Dry matter intake is key. 

"I think dry matter intake is one of the really big answers — and that's true for calves, for transition cows, for fresh cows," said Hutjens. "That is the answer."

Marginal dry matter intake — that last pound of dry matter given to a cow after all her maintenance requirements are paid off — can support 2.5 pounds more milk for Holsteins and 2 more pounds for Jersey cows, Hutjens said. 

If the cost of one pound of dry matter is 9 cents, and the value of 2 pounds of milk is 30 cents based off $15/cwt, "that's 21 cents laying on the table if I get that one pound of dry matter into that cow," said Hutjens. 

The next questions producers should ask then is "how much should those buggers eat?" 

For cows weighing 1,320 - 1,540 pounds and producing 88 pounds of milk, each cow would need to consume 53 - 55 pounds of dry matter, Hutjens explained. 

2. Forage strategies and tools

Hutjens asked farmers, "What is your variation in forage quality? What are your mixing times on your TMR (Total Mixed Ration) and particle size?"

In talking to people at the conference, Hutjens said changing the mixing order of the feeds resulted in 2.5 pounds more milk.

"Same ration, same everything, you're just changing the order and the time of the mixing," said Hutjens. Knowing the mixing time on the TMR is important as well as knowing if that is the right amount of time to mix. 

"Are you dropping feeds in within 30 minutes of the target time?" Hutjens asked. "So if you drop feed in at 7 in the morning, is there fresh feed there every morning at 7?"

Another factor with forage is the risk of mycotoxin and molds.

"Those products can cause a real problem," Hutjens pointed out. "Usually when you have one of these, you have more than one."

When using flow agents or mycotoxin binders, farmers should consider what they are "trying to tie up or reduce."

3. Transitions tools and approaches

Hutjens touched on using uNDF (undigested NDF) in ration evaluation. 

"You've got that rumen inside that cow, everyday you're going to feed that cow and she's going to eat feed and eventually she will move it out," Hutjens explained. "How fast does that move out?"

The guideline is 5 pounds of uNDF-30 for Holsteins and 4 pounds of uNDF-30 for Jerseys.

Hutjens asked farmers, "Are my cows getting too much bulk in their diet, or in fact is it going through too quickly?"

Hutjens also referred to the Penn State three box separator to determine the correct particle length needed to improve ruminant nutrition. 

Referring to a Dairyland Laboratories Inc. Corn Silage Processing Score chart for 2017, Hutjens said cows produce more milk when more starch is processed when cows eat. 

"Unless you guys like to fee pheasants and quail in the winter, I'm going to be taking that corn starch and getting some more milk out of it," Hutjens said. 

While the test for fecal starch is a "little expensive," Hutjens said he likes the test so farmers know how much starch is in manure. If fecal starch is over 4.5 - 5 percent, "then you've lost starch."

4. Feed additives

When it comes to feed additives, farmers need to ask how much, why and when should it be added. 

Hutjens recommends additives for lactating cows. He considers Rumensin as the most important, followed by silage inoculants, organic trace minerals ("I am excited what these trace minerals can do for animal health," Hutjens said.), yeast products, rumen buffers and biotin. 

"Why is rumen buffers fifth?" Hutjens asked. "You can find a replacement in the feed program — put some straw in, mix differently, take some starch out of the diet. Can you replace Rumensin?"

For fresh cows, Hutjens likes to keep calcium numbers up, "especially for older cows." Rumen buffers, yeast culture, Rumensin, calcium supplements, silage inoculants and Biotin were among the suggested additives for fresh cows. 

What does this cost? According to Hutjens, producers should get back "about three times" the money invested in additives.

5. Feed costs and budgets

Looking at the economics of forage programs, based on 75 pounds of milk and 2018 feed prices, a forage combination of 70 percent corn silage and 30 percent alfalfa costs about $3.56 per cow, per day. Increasing the combination to half corn silage and half alfalfa puts the cost per cow per day at $4.09. With alfalfa at 70 percent and corn silage at 30 percent, the cost goes up to $4.56.

"As alfalfa increases, I can see another dollar laying on the table," said Hutjens said. "So that begs the question — do you have the right forage program for your farm?"

Hutjens also referred to FeedVal v6.0, which allows producers to use local prices, select nutrient values important to them, and indicates values of feed based on other available feeds. 

Five things not to do

Hutjens' five "do not do" items for 2018 were:

  1. Remove minerals from rations
  2. Cheat heifers — slow down growth
  3. Delay breeding with longer calving intervals
  4. Avoid body conditions scores greater than 3.25 without rBST
  5. Saving a dime and losing a dollar

Along with not pulling minerals, is like a game of Russian Roulette, Hutjens said.  

Slowing down heifers every month, will result in roughly $45 - $50 lost in higher feed costs. Slow them down even longer, it will cost more because "now you have big old heifers that don't give as much milk," said Hutjens. 

Delaying breeding may save semen costs, "because you will get better fertility," but may result in losing about two-tenths of a pound of milk for every day beyond the optimum open time.

Feeding checklist

Hutjens challenged farmers to score more than five points on his feeding checklist. 

  • Feeding an accelerated milk or milk replacer program - a "no brainer," according to Hutjens.
  • Calving heifers at 23 - 24 months of age with monitoring growth 1.8 pound ADG (Holsteins). Hutjens recommends measuring calves.
  • Consider the low energy, high straw dry cow ration - "a powerful concept," Hutjens added. 
  • Strategic use of feed additives.
  • Implement a fresh cow group for 10 - 21 days
  • Use of calcium boluses for at risk cows - "Do you know what's in your boluses?" Hutjens asked.
  • Supplementing organic trace minerals - zinc, copper, chromium and selenium.
  • Heat stress abatement for dry cows - "That looks awfully good at this stage of the game," Hutjens added. 

Wrapping up the session, Hutjens stressed, "You can only control the controllables. I can't control the price of milk and I can't control the electric, taxes, all those important things."