Finding ‘lost’ milk improves efficiency, profitability

Jan Shepel
While using rbST on dairy cows may have resulted in a production boost of 7-10 lbs. of milk per cow per day, at the same time its possible that farmers haven't been paying attention to all the details that make dairying profitable.

MADISON - With more dairy processors responding to their customers’ wishes for rbST-free milk and dairy products, it’s a good time for farmers to “look for lost opportunities” and fine-tune management practices that might have slipped with the use of the milk-boosting hormone.

“I think rbST made us a little sloppy as dairy producers,” said Dr. Gordie Jones, DVM. A partner in Central Sands Dairy, he also is an independent dairy consultant, working with dairy producers and veterinarians in the United States and abroad on herd performance, nutrition and cow comfort.

During a recent talk in Madison, Jones said that using rbST on dairy cows brought a response of added production of from seven to 10 pounds per cow per day but may have meant that farmers didn’t pay attention to all the details that make dairying profitable. Now, if their milk market dictates no use of the hormone, it’s a good time to go back and look at all those details.

Sometimes, cows being treated with the hormone were spending a lot more days open, because they could continue milking at fairly high levels. Jones said some cows spent 300-800 days in milk because rbST made that possible.

His experience with herds is that many of them came off it gradually but he notes that financially it would have been better if the cows had all come off “cold turkey.”

Some of the partners Jones works with have been off rbST for three, four or even five years. His job as a consultant has been “finder of lost milk and finder of lost opportunities.” He may not be able to find all the milk that was being produced with the use of the hormone but he can find a good portion of it by studying cow-side practices.

He starts by looking at a cow’s day and how she spends it. “Time is precious to a cow. She has to lie down the right number of hours,” he said. So he looks at the amount of time the cows spend in the parlor and holding area. “She should be no more than a total of four hours away from feed, water and bedding,” he said.

The timing of feeding is also something he looks at, noting that cows evolved eating at dawn and evening – to avoid predators. In a modern dairy facility, that information translates into feeding at those same times of the day to maximize her dry matter intake.

Jones said research shows that cows take in more than 50 percent of their dry matter intake as they exit from the parlor in the morning. “If cows run to the bunk to eat you did something wrong,” he tells dairy producers. “If you do something to change cows’ behavior, you have failed.”

That last bite of feed is worth 10 cents, he said, but is worthwhile since it can produce 2 ½ pounds of milk. “You exchange a dime for 50 cents,” he adds.

Though feed is critically important, there are many other factors that influence the cow’s production. A research trial he outlined looked at 47 dairy herds with similar genetics that were fed the same TMR yet milk yields varied as much as 30 pounds per cow.

Non-dietary factors accounted for 56 percent of the difference in milk, he added. Those factors included feed management. Pushing up feed every two hours is worth nine pounds of milk, he said.

Dairy cows lay in beds of sand in an open-air barn. Experts estimate that sand bedding is worth six pounds of milk per cow per day.

Air quality

Air quality and ventilation are another area that Jones looks at when he helps farmers look for that “lost milk.” “More air means she eats more,” he said.

He also looks at the cushioning in the freestalls, suggesting that farmers jump up and land on their knees in the freestalls to see if they are soft enough for cows. Jones said that sand bedding is worth six pounds of milk per cow per day. Neck rail placement and lunge space limitations can also impact cow comfort and their ability to produce milk. “Milk equals the absence of stress,” he added.

Social interaction is also important among cows. Jones says that if the group size is less than 100 cows, that’s worth three pounds from each cow each day. Cows in a pen of that size have one social group. If they are in a group of 100-200 cows they are forced to create two social groups and if they are in a group of 300 cows and over, they have no social group, he adds.

Dean Strauss, managing partner of Majestic Crossing Dairy in Sheboygan Falls, says the dairy industry was changed by rbST and is now being changed by the loss of the product. “Farmers view it as a sustainability issue – producing more with less. But consumers are reluctant to accept it,” he said.

“As farmers we don’t like that but the processing industry views it as a marketing opportunity. It’s positive that consumers are interested in their food and where it comes from,” Strauss added.

Strauss said his family started discussing the ramifications of their use of rbST and argued about it, but eventually stopped usage in 2008. That gave them plenty of time to be in compliance when their milk processor required that farmers not use rbST by January 1, 2011.

Keys to working without rbST include allowing cows to complete their lactation; utilizing a top-notch reproductive program; having excellent quality feed; and watching the energy levels in the diet.

Profit either way

“Profitability can exist with or without rbST,” he said.

He agreed with Jones that finding that little bit of extra milk from the improvement in other management practices is important. He advised farmers to do “several things one-half percent better” to make up for the loss of the other management practice.

He focused on increasing components and reproductive efficiency while reducing twinning rate and clinical mastitis. With the loss of the hormone as a tool in the dairy herd, the opportunity is lost to keep cows milking longer and voluntary culling is increased.

Strauss said he found several measures of herd efficiency and profitability when comparing statistics from his herd while on rbST and since it has been off it. In the last three years during which they used rbST, the somatic cell counts ran 180,000-200,000 and the percentage of hospital cows was 1.75. Pregnancy rate was 20 percent and calving interval was 14 months.

Since the herd has been off rbST, their eight-year SCC average has been 98,000; the percentage of hospital cows is down to .5 percent – meaning 20-plus cows or more are in the tank; and the pregnancy rate for the past six years has been 30 percent. The calving interval is 12.7 months and sometimes 12.5 months for the family’s 1,750 cows.

Strauss said things to consider when making a decision on margins and profitability related to the use of rbST include: cost of the product and the labor to give it to cows; there are compliance issues to consider – did it get done.

When they discontinued use of rbST on the home farm, Strauss said they got no incentive from their milk buyer for doing so. The second farm they added to the operation got a 25-cent and then a 30-cent per-hundredweight bonus for being rbST-free but then that incentive was gone.

Strauss said the keys to working without rbST include allowing cows to complete their lactation; utilizing a top-notch reproductive program; having excellent quality feed; and watching the energy levels in the diet.