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We all wish our cows could meet their potential and live 20 years or longer. However, until we discover the Bovine Fountain of Youth, this remains an elusive dream. Indeed, the average on most dairy farms is only six years. With so much potential, we need to focus on how we can help our cows live long, productive lives.

What Do WE Know About Longevity? Why Aren’t we Using What we Know?

When we develop illnesses, we don’t always have enough information to know what the root cause is.  This isn’t so in dairy farming. Mountains of data have been collected, analyzed and reported but, in general, dairy farmers are not acting up the information. We know what causes involuntary culling. We know what best practices could prevent it.  Unfortunately, the knowing and the implementing are still too far apart.

How Big is the Current Problem with Involuntary Culling?

According to Government of Canada and USDA reports, 30-40% of cows are being culled from herds each year.  Some of this is accounted for because of low production or sales of breeding stock. Those are conscious decisions made for specific reasons.  However, much of the culling is involuntary and is a huge contributor to decreased longevity. The majority of cows are culled because of reproductive problems, poor udder health, lameness and problems with feet and legs. Other illness or injuries also contribute to the high statistics. A culling rate of 40% means that a herd cannot raise enough heifers to meet replacement needs.

What Does this Mean?

High rates of involuntary culling are probably directly correlated to poor levels of animal welfare.  Unfortunately, these health/welfare problems may be indicators of something much more problematic.  The underlying health and welfare problems may be much higher than the rate of culling indicates.  Ito et al reported in 2010 that the actual prevalence of lameness among dairy cows is above 20%.  That percentage is considerably higher than the 2% that are reported as being culled because of feet and leg problems (Government of Canada, 2011). In 2008, 46% of cows in free stalls had hoof lesions (Cramer et al, 2008).  The numbers are similar in the USA.  USDA (2007) reports that four percent were culled for lameness, however an average of 20% to 55% of dairy cows are lame at any one time, depending on the region (Espejo et al, 2006, von Keyserlingk et al, 2013).

Mastitis Has the Same Pattern

In 2011, the Government of Canada reported that about 4% of cows are culled because of mastitis, high SSC or poor udder health. However, Rierkerink et al estimate that mastitis incidence is around 23 cases per 100 cow years.

Who Does A Good Job Of Achieving Longevity?

Best management practices, derived from proven science, are providing some breeders with improved animal welfare and increased profits.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we can’t help our cows live long, productive lives.  We need to put what we know, into practice to extend their longevity.

Are you meeting these herd composition benchmarks?

  • 1st lactation                  24%
  • 2nd lactation                 20%
  • 3rd lactation                  16%
  • 4th lactation                  12%
  • 5th lactation and later   28%

Best Practices that Ensure Longevity

  1. Calf Management – Protocols to raise health and reduce calf mortality.
  2. Implement Indoor Housing Factors – To reduce lameness, injury, and illness.
  3. Benchmarking of farm performance.
  4. Implement an aggressive reproduction program.
  5. Reducing lameness.
  6. Build dairy producer knowledge.

Calf Management

It might seem unusual to start with calf management when you’re talking about extending the life expectancy of cows.  Many place involuntary culling of cows in the number one slot for how to improve longevity. That seems obvious. However, less obvious, but with perhaps even more impact are the calves that never make it to the milking line. Vasseur et al reported in 2012 that pre-weaning calf mortality rates are high in North America. Mortality rate record keeping, which needs to be dramatically improved and increased, is the first step.  Setting a realistic benchmark is also important.  Unfortunately, the Vasseur study also reported “some farms with mortality rates above 19% did not consider calf mortality to be a problem.”

  • Individual housing may not affect small groups but could reduce mortality among larger groups (more than 7-10 animals).
  • The effect of a calf’s illness on her ability to milk as a cow is, in general, underestimated. Recent research (Soberon et al, 2012) shows the effect of pre-weaning growth rates on later milk yields.
  • Failure to implement well-known and documented best practices is a major reason for the continuing high levels of calf mortality on many farms.

They also noted that in Canada there are significant differences in mortality rates between farms. The differences between the highest quartile of farms and the lowest is significant which is positive in so far as it indicates that, when good management practices are implemented, it is possible to dramatically reduce the problems.

The Role of Housing in Dairy Cattle Longevity

The characteristics of the environment that your cows are house in can have a significant impact on their longevity. Even when you have bred for the best possible feet and leg conformation, it can be compromised if the housing situation itself raises the risk of injuries. Some conclude that pasturing is the answer.  More thoughtful study and design needs to be applied to creating the ideal indoor environment for lactating cows.

One Canadian survey found that nearly 25% of Canadian dairy farms scored lameness results at less than 10%. This is lower than the results reported by some pasture-based dairies, proving that it is definitely possible to do make sustainable improvements.

Five improvements:

  1. Take responsibility: Zero grazing puts the responsibility upon the producer to create housing and provide management that does not negatively impact the dairy animals.
  2. Raise the rail height: Simply by increasing the height of the feed rail at the feed bunk to above 140cms from the floor can greatly reduce the risk of neck injuries. (Zaffino, 2012)
  3. Reduce standing time: Standing on wet, concrete floors has a direct correlation with lameness.
  4. Provide comfortable stalls: Depending on the situation, sand or mattresses have been shown to contribute to reduced instances of lameness.
  5. Sufficient Bedding: Switching to sand bedding requires significant change to buildings. Simply adding more straw or sawdust bedding results in hock lesions falling to 31% from the 80% prevalence that is seen when cows are housed on mattresses and no bedding.

Benchmarking of Farm Performance

More often than not, record keeping has a positive impact. Knowing the exact incidence of lameness, mastitis or other illness help set a target for reducing them. Well-managed dairies are reaping the financial benefits of reducing lameness and raising the welfare of their milking herd.  More training, data collection, and peer sharing is a pro-active and positive way to get the results heading in the right direction.

From Candid Camera to Can-Do Care!

Consciously and conscientiously targeting the reduction of involuntary culling is directly correlated to increased cattle longevity. Ensuring that all possible means – health, housing, and genetics – are being responsibly managed – will have a direct effect on reducing involuntary culling and mortality rates.

Reproduction Must Be Managed Better

Much is written about improving reproduction. At one time, the emphasis was solely placed on heat detection.  However, successful dairy managers are now paying particular attention to reproductive management from birth, through rearing, to transition and milking.  Definitely too many breeders are willing to accept less than the best reproductive performance. The first step is acknowledging that there are reproductive problems that aren’t being solved. This must be followed up by bringing in whatever help you can to build improvements into your repro program.

Lameness is Running Away with the Profits

We expect some degree of slowness, bent backs and hesitant steps in the aging and elderly folks we see around us.  However when our dairy herd is limping, falling down or unable to get up, we are forced, whether we like it or not to cull the animal – regardless of her age.  Lameness is a serious problem which adversely affects milk yield.  Research has shown that high yielding cows are more susceptible to lameness.  Too often, we accept this as one of the outcomes of an intensive focus over the past few decades on dairy production. Even though there are excellent best practices that can be used, too often this area is disregarded at the expense of the dairy operation and the welfare of the animal.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

It takes information to make improvements.  You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.  Dairy farmers are recognizing that they are responsible for improving their knowledge and understanding of the factors that impact longevity.  Sharing the statistics and setting benchmarks is next.  Most important, however, is implementing an action plan.

Only when improved record keeping and best practices are acted upon, will we begin to see our dairy herds reach their full lifetime potential.


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The key to profit on a dairy farm is always a combination of steps and in making decisions and in taking actions in the order of their relative importance.

Let’s leave genetics aside and consider how effective management can contribute to profit. The source for this article is the results from the Ontario DHI project called ROF (Return over Feed Costs). It formed the basis for comparison for producer management clubs run for over the five years prior to 2010. I had the opportunity to run a number of these clubs, where the herds ranged from 50 to 2000 cows. The producer club members set goals and openly shared their results and ideas on how to help other club members improve their dairy operations. Participants were able to increase their ROF for their milking cows by $1.00 to $4.50 per cow per day. On average an hundred cow herd increased their return over feed costs by $180 per day or over $65,700 per year.

Ten Proven Profit Builders

In order of their importance to dairy farmers the profit building steps were:

Highest Priority Step

Step 1.: Increase Production Per Cow Per Day
Club members all started by fine tuning their rations which included ration balancing, ration preparation and number of feedings per day. Once production levels increased, they were able to cull low end, problem or non-pregnant cows.  Increases of 7-10 pounds of milk and .3 to .4% fat were common among club members. In the end these producers were able to milk 10% fewer cows. That was significant and resulted in increased production being the #1 profit builder.

Very Important Steps

Step 2: Improve Feed Intake
Before joining the club, producers seldom were aware of their cows DMI (Dry Matter Intake). Most herds were in the 44-45 lbs range at the start but after fine tuning and changing, most herds were over 50 – 52 lbs DMI. The old saying ‘more feed in – more milk out’ proved to be very true. Many producers increased the forage percent of their diets from 60% to over 80% and saw significant monetary returns to their bottom lines. Almost all producers changed the varieties of alfalfa or corn grown or how they harvested their forages. Three producers that were either increasing their herd sizes or that were needing to replace their haylage storage facilities went to harvesting their alfalfa as dry hay to save on harvesting equipment costs and to give them less rushed schedules at harvest time. These three were all able to achieve the production they required, they required less labor for harvesting and achieved increased profit. Club members often brought their feed advisors to the club meeting and that helped all club members.

Step 3: Enhance Reproduction
Almost every herd changed their heat detection program. Some did it by staff training, or focusing observation on cows 50 – 125 days in milk (which included re-organizing cow groups) and others did it by purchasing heat detection services or equipment. Some herds reduced average days in milk from over 200 to less than 150.  The reduction in average days in milk paid off royally in increased average pounds of milk per cow per day and in reduced number of days in dry pens. Holding club meeting on-farm gave club members ideas on what they should do differently.  Veterinarians or reproduction specialists were used as meeting speakers. It was amazing to see how club members picked up on ways to tweak their home reproduction program. 

Influential Steps

Step 4: Expand Transition Cow Program
It is every producer’s desire to have cows and heifers transition from dry to milking with ease and without problems.  Great success was seen by club members that monitored and recording and implemented a three stage program of far-off, close-up and fresh cow (0 to 21 days) groups.  As farms do not run comparisons of transition programs it is not possible to know exactly their increased profit but the saving on calving problems and getting cows well started into lactation were often mentioned by participants as being very important.

Step 5: Focus on Finances
At every meeting there were discussions on how changes club members had made impacted their bottom lines. Participants saw increased profit by: 1) having their crops custom harvested, thus saving on having to invest in machinery: 2) purchasing feed inputs instead of growing them; and 3) by focusing their capital purchases or improvements on items that they used every day or that helped their staff to do a better job. At some club meetings accountants or bank managers were included as speakers and their outside the industry eyes added greatly to the discussions.

Step 6: Re-Work Heifer Program
About 1/3 of club members did a total re-work of their heifer rearing programs. Major benefits were seen in less illness and calving up to 3 months earlier. Many producers penciled out that they saved as much a $400 for every heifer raised.

Step 7: Enhance Animal Environment
The vast majority of members made changes to their facilities or how they handled their animals. Some went as far are making major facility changes. One matter that received considerable attention was cow comfort including both stall design and cow cooling during hot weather. Producers that monitored there before and after cow comfort saw increases of 5 or more pounds of milk per day and improved pregnancy rates. 

Other Noteworthy Steps

Step 8: Improve Records / Software / Devices
After participating in the club, members often stated that they had not realized how important good records were for being able to improve profitability. All members had kept breeding and production records but, once they started keeping and using feeding records and linking all records to finances, they were very pleasantly surprised to see the increased profit. A note of caution here. Recording is the first step but the information obtained needs to be acted upon.

Step 9: Increase Labor Efficiency
Labor costs can range from 10 to 20% of total farm costs. The club members that changed to having custom operators provide one or more service saw considerable savings in labor costs. They were able to focus their staff on caring for animals. Most participants reported that they personally were able to spend more time managing, planning and spending time with family, once their operation used labor more effectively and more efficiently.

Step 10: Set Aside Time for Planning / Goals
Participants were encouraged to spend one day a month in planning and goal setting. Many frowned on the need to do that in the beginning. However, after seeing how planning and goal setting helped other club members increase their profits, members freely shared their own goals, plans, actions and results.


The Bullvine Bottom Line

Of course every farm and farm manager operates differently. But in all cases records and data are needed to make the best possible decisions. The ten profit builders provided here can be used as a guide for dairy farm managers to use to set their priorities and make their plans.  Few managers want to be average and all want to enhance their bottom lines.  Perhaps one club member put it best when he said that, by attaching priorities and using these ten steps, he was able to “ Significantly drive-up his revenue, keep his costs under control and to have a life outside of his farm operation’.


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Genomic Testing – Are You Missing Out?

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

When The Bullvine mentions genomic testing to production oriented breeders, we frequently get the reaction “Oh, that’s just for herds that sell high priced animals. I focus on running a profitable milking operation. I don’t need to spend money on testing my animals.” Well, in fact, that is not an accurate assessment of the benefits available from using this tool at the present time. If you are among those not using genomics, Stop Procrastinating! It is a tool that everyone breeding their herd to improve it genetically should not be without.

Only Very Moderate Uptake – So Far

Currently, there is an 8% uptake of genomic testing of all Holstein heifer calves. The total is less in other breeds. We have barely scratched the surface.  Half a century ago, official milk recording was at the same low level. Today it is recognized as a much-needed toll both on-farm and in the national herd. Obviously the question that breeders need answers to is ‘How will I benefit from genomic testing all my heifer calves?

Known Benefits

Much has been written about benefits and opportunities available to breeders who are submitting samples for DNA testing. Those range from selecting the best mates for your females, … to parentage verification, … to how to manage your heifer herd, … to deciding which heifers to breed and which ones to cull or implant, … to polled or not polled, …to finding the genetic outlier of an individual mating, …to an aid in marketing heifers in sales.

Just recently Holstein USA and Zetas launched an exciting service called Enlight. Breeders that submit their samples to Zoetis can through Holstein USA’s website summarize and analyze their heifers for their genetic qualities. This is the first, and no doubt other breeds will establish similar services in the future. Breeding to get the genetics that work best for you and then managing them in the best way possible is definitely important.

At the industry level, genomic testing has also proven beneficial. Alta Genetics, a few years ago, working with large herds in the USA, parentage verified all young sire daughters. It was a significant step forward in accuracy of sire proofs so they could guarantee their product to their customers. Companies like Zoetis and Neogen initiated genomic testing services so they could help producers and also as complementary to their other products. A.I companies have been able to restrict their young sires sampled to only top genomically evaluated young sires, thereby saving millions for themselves by not sampling the bottom enders and millions for breeders that did not have to raise, calve in and milk the lower genetic merit daughters of the bottom end bulls. All of these benefits are leading to cost savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

However six years into using genomics we are only starting to reap the rewards.

Genomics Will Make the Future Brighter

Breeders often mention that they want sires to use and females in their herd that are superior to what is available today for traits that are difficult or impossible to measure. Here are some thoughts and facts that may help breeders to decide to use genomic testing so they can have animals that are even more profitable than their herd is today. It does however require that genomic testing becomes routine (Read more: Why 84% of Dairy Breeders Will Soon Be Using Genomic Sires!).


Investigation, at the farm level, is being done in beef heifers on growth rates, diets tailored to genotype, immunity to common diseases and age at first estrus. The results of those studies will be able to be applied to dairy heifers since little similar research is being conducted for dairy heifers. Already breeders can test for the genetically inferior heifers, so they do not need to be raised. Up to $500 per heifer in rearing cost could be saved by having the retained heifers calving by 22 months of age.  Remember that it is age at first estrus that is important, for which we have very limited farm data. First breeding depends on a breeding actually occurring.  With heifers genotyped and selected for first estrus significant savings will be possible.

Feed Efficiency:

Two major research projects, one in USA and The Netherlands and one in Australia and New Zealand, will identify the cows that are genetically more efficient at converting their feed to milk. Within a couple of years, we can expect to see reports relating genomic information to feed efficiency.  This type of research is costly and not currently practical at the farm level, but using research herds this investigation is well underway. Reducing feed costs by 5-10% through genetic selection would result in many millions in savings. That is likely to be crucial to the dairy cattle breeding industry as dairy competes to feed a hungry world. (Read more: Feed Efficiency: The Money Saver and 15 Strength Sires That Will Still Fit In Your Stalls)


CDCB already makes available the inbreeding level of genomically tested animals based on their genomic results. No doubt further research results will provide numbers associated with inbreeding. Think about it. In the past the inbreeding level for two full sisters, based on pedigree, has been considered the same. However, by using their genomic profiles the level of inbreeding can be much more accurately known for each sister. A recent report from CDN, for the time period 2010 to 2013, shows that inbreeding rates are increasing not decreasing. Even though breeders are aware that inbreeding is a negative to future profit, they continue using fewer sire lines. More in-depth study of presence or absence of genes that negatively affect the viability of our cattle take time. Why do we always expect someone else to take responsibility for the level and rates of inbreeding? (Read more: 6 Steps to Understanding & Managing Inbreeding in Your Herd and Stop Talking About Inbreeding…)

Disease Resistance:

The list is long on diseases that breeders want their animals to be resistant to. Many research projects are underway to relate the genotype to particular types of mastitis, respiratory diseases, wasting diseases and even production limiting diseases like milk fever. CDN and Canadian milk recording agencies have been capturing field data for a number of years now on eight production limiting diseases. In time, the relationships between genetic lines and these diseases will be better-known. So that selection can be carried out to avoid problem bloodlines. When more animals are genomically tested, and bloodlines prone to diseases are identified great steps forward will be able to be made. It takes considerably more than 8% of the population genomically tested to move breeding for disease resistance to reality. (Read more:  Genomics – Opportunity is Knocking)


Failure to get animals to show good heats, to produce good oocytes and conceive when bred is the leading frustration on most dairy farms. The role that genetics plays in that frustration is now receiving attention by many researchers and organizations. In the past, the capturing of useful data to do genetic analysis relative to reproduction has been a significant problem. The relating of genomic results to reproduction holds out considerable hope. Early embryonic death, haplotypes that negatively impact reproduction, genetic difference between animals for cystic ovaries and many more are all areas of concern for breeders. Once again both genomic and on-farm data are needed to move forward. (Read more: 10 things dairies with great reproduction do right and Are Your Genetics Wasting Feed and Labor?)


I hear breeders say “Genomic indexes are just like production indexes.” However, that is not so. There are genomic indexes for production traits, conformation traits and management traits. Genomics is a dynamic science. It is best if breeders know not only the genomic values for the animals currently in their herds but also their ancestors. To build the genomic history for a herd necessitates that testing start as soon as possible. Genomics is a tool every breeder will benefit from using no matter what their selection goals are. (Read more: Better Decision Making by Using Technology and FACT VS. FANTASY: A Realistic Approach to Sire Selection)

In Another World

Outside the world of dairy cattle but totally related to DNA analysis, there is a study just under way in the United Kingdom, where 100,000 people with cancer or rare diseases are being genotyped to better understand people’s ability to avoid or resist cancer and disease. One of the terms used in the news release was that before there was DNA profiling this work would not have been possible. Relating that back to dairy cattle, if we do not have the DNA information for animals we will be limited in our ability to eliminate deleterious genes from our cattle.

Will Genomic Testing Pay?

The question for breeders appears to have been one of cost – benefit. “What will I get for the fifty dollar cost of doing a low-density test?”  The fact is that, to date, milk producers have not taken the opportunity for more rapid genetic advancement by testing all their heifers. However, the tide is about to change. With new information coming out almost weekly on how the genetic (aka genomic) make-up of an animal relates to profitability, breeders without genomic information on their herd will not be in a position to know which sires to use or how to manage or feed their animals. Genomic testing needs to be viewed as an investment rather than a cost. Invest $50 shortly after birth to save hundreds over the cow’s lifetime.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Every journey requires that a first step be taken. The first step is that breeders submit samples for DNA analysis. Every breeder will benefit by knowing the genomics of their herd. No doubt the cost of testing will come down as more breeders participate.  Future success in dairying will require genomic testing, just as current success depends on capturing and using performance information. Are you prepared for using genomic information to assist in creating your future success in dairying?

The Dairy Breeders No BS Guide to Genomics


Not sure what all this hype about genomics is all about?

Want to learn what it is and what it means to your breeding program?

Download this free guide.





One of the things that makes the dairy community great is the passion producers have for what they do.  One area that we have found that brings out the most passion is debating which breed is the best.  While there are many ways to look at it, the most logical way is to look at which breed is the most profitable.

Since we first joined this discussion back in May of 2012, (Read more: Holstein vs. Jersey: Which breed is more profitable) there have been many interesting points raised on both sides of this question.  So we here at the Bullvine decided to take a deeper look at this issue and see if we could get more insight into this much debated topic.

Now first let`s be clear.  This is a very lopsided debate because Holsteins are the primary breed on 92% of the farms in North America, and Jersey is only the primary breed on about 3.5%.  But man you have to love the passionately vocal nature of most Jersey breeders.

Feed Conversion

With feed accounting for between 52 and 58 percent of the total cost of production, any significant advantage for either breed is its ability to convert feed into milk solids, especially with the increased costs of feed these days.  While the superior overall production ability of a Holstein vs. a Jersey (Holstein 24,291 lbs of milk 888lbs Fat 3.66 % Fat 765 lbs Protein 3.15 % Protein vs. Jersey  16,997 lbs milk 776 lbs Fat 4.57% Fat 633 lbs Protein 3.73% Protein)  has  long been documented the true numbers lie in how well each breed converts their feed intake into milk and milk solids In a Dairy Science paper they looked at feed intake studies for 4 breed groups: Holstein, Holstein x Jersey, Jersey x Holstein and Jersey, where all cows were fed the same ration, were housed in the same type of pens and were milked together.  The results found that Holstein had the highest intake and the highest production yield.  However, Jersey converted a higher percentage of their intake to production than Holstein did.












669 (6.8%)

599 (6.4%)

496 (5.2%)

334 (4.2%)


2,666 (27.25)

2,468 (26.5%)

2,425 (25.6%)

2,085 (26.2)


27 (0.3%)

32 (0.3%)

33 (0.3%)

21 (0.3%)


5,968 (60.8%)

6,057 (65.1%)

6,162 (65.0%)

5,259 (66.0%)

The bottom line result of this research was that Jerseys were 6% better at converting intake into production.  That may not seem that significant until you factor in that feed costs are 52-58% of total costs.  That difference represents a 3.3% increase in profitability.  One thing is for sure, feed efficiency is certainly one area that we need to have more supporting research in order to develop genetic indices.

Milk Price

One of the key factors determining which breed is better depends on where you market your milk.  Certain pricing models favor fluid milk production while others favor component production.  Fluid markets certainly favor Holstein while component markets favor Jerseys.  Pennsylvania researchers used a farm level income and policy simulator (FLIPSIM) model to predict farm performance under fluid pricing or component pricing in Pennsylvania.  Under fluid pricing, a high producing (13,961 pounds) 60-cow Jersey herd could expect a net cash income of $32,300 versus $63,100 for a high producing (20,600 pounds) Holstein herd.  Under component pricing, the same Jersey herd would increase in net cash income to $55,400 versus $61,100 for the Holstein herd.  Under component pricing, a Jersey herd could expect an increase of about $23,000, while the Holstein herd would decline slightly.  Combine that with the increased feed efficiency of the Jersey’s mentioned above and, depending on the pricing model in your area, Jerseys would become a more profitable option.  Especially when you factor in the less volatile milk solids market as compared to fluid milk pricing.


For years Jerseys have enjoyed the reputation of being far superior to Holstein.  However, increased attention to this area by many producers may have changed or at least narrowed the gap.  This is certainly an area that many breeders are paying attention to, specifically the scores for Conception Rate (CR), Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR) and Calving Interval (CI).  The Days to First Breeding (DFB) declined for Holsteins from 92 d in 1996 to 85 d in 2007.  A similar trend was not observed for Jerseys, possibly because synchronized breeding is more common in Holstein herds than in Jersey herds.  As far as conception rates are concerned, Jerseys still have a slight edge over Holsteins.  But that trend is also changing.  As Holsteins have gone from 2.5 NB (Number of Breedings per lactation) in 1996 to 2.6 in 2007, while Jersey’s have gone from 2.2 in 1996 to 2.4 in 2007.

Now one area that I often hear comments from producers about is the value of the resulting calves.  Specifically that drop bull calves that will be sold for beef.  One of the great strategies I have seen employed by many Jersey and even top Holstein herds is to breed the bottom 10% of their herd to a beef sire.  As they know they will not be needing the resulting females or males from these animals the value of using a beef sire, typically more than compensates for the Holstein versus Jersey drop calf price.  Another management or reproduction tool that many producers are using is sexed semen which allows them to greatly decrease the number of female calves needed for replacements.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Holstein and Jersey cows both have their advantages and disadvantages.  Holsteins are larger and have higher salvage value than Jerseys.  Jerseys tend to be more efficient and typically have fewer reproductive challenges. Each have an advantage under milk pricing that favors their particular productive strengths.  The first area you need to look at for what breed is better for you, is the milk pricing model in your area.  If it is a fluid market, then typically Holstein would be more advantageous. If the price model favors component pricing, then you would typically be better off milking Jerseys.  After looking at the price model, you certainly need to adjust your management to maximize the reproduction and feed efficiency for the breed you have chosen.  Even your housing set up could be better suited for one breed over the other.  While I am sure the Jersey versus Holstein debate will go on for years to come, there are certain new trends that may be contrary to previous beliefs and new feed efficiency information that are opening many producers’ eyes.


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Are Your Genetics Wasting Feed and Labor?

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Throughout my education and my career in livestock improvement I have heard learned people say ‘the fields of nutrition, reproduction, management and genetics are independent of each other’. As recently as last week I had a nutritionist tell me that what geneticists do is secondary to what a nutritionist can do when it comes to on-farm profit. Well today I wish to challenge that theory of no inter-relationships.

Although I do not want to get into a back-and-forth between genetics and other disciplines, the purpose for this article is to challenge our thinking and see if there are in fact ways that genetics can be complimentary to nutrition, reproduction and management. It takes all disciplines working collaboratively to enhance on-farm profits thereby providing consumers with the dairy products they wish to consume.

If a stranger walked into your facilities and told you that you are wasting 20% of the feedstuffs you produce or that 20% of your daily labor could be eliminated would you throw them off the farm? Or would you stop and listen and consider taking action? If that stranger was your genetic supplier would you continue to consider their advice or would you scoff at them saying that “the genetics you use can not reduce your costs or increase your revenue”.

The following are areas that have a genetic component to them that deserve consideration:


Heifers not calving before 24 months or cows with an extra month or two in the dry pens each lactation take feed and labor at the rate of $2 to $4 (avg $3) per day. A heifer that does not calve until 27 months and takes an extra 45 days per lactation in the dry pen has costs an unnecessary $675 by the time she starts her fourth lactation at 69 months of age. By that time that heifer should be half way thru her fourth lactation. She not only costs an extra $675 but has lost $3000 in milk and progeny revenue by 69 months of age. The dollars lost add up quickly.

Genetically consider using only sires that are well above average for DPR  +1.0 / DF 105, cull heifers and cows with below average fertility ratings either their genetic rating or actual performance, and do not use bulls or retain females that are below 100 for Body Conditioning Score. If you are buying embryos or replacement females be sure to look at the genetic fertility ratings. Making excuses for buying below average animals or embryos is false economy. Another factor that is not a genetic rating, but has a direct bearing on reproduction is Sire Conception Rating. Remember that for each 21 days (one cycle) a female is open it costs $63 and that does not consider increased semen and insemination costs.

Productive Life / Herd Life

Improving just one year of herd life, from a herd average of three to four lactations, can markedly improve the revenue a cow will generate in her lifetime. An extra 26,000 pound or 12,000 kgs per cow per lifetime also reduces the number of heifers that need to be raised or purchased.  In a 300 milking cow herd the total of added revenue and reduced heifer costs can be as much as $300 net per cow per year. As heifer rearing is no longer a major profit centre, like it once was, why incur the feed and labor costs of extra heifers?

Using sires that are at least PL +4.5 or HL 110 is strongly recommended. Females should not be retained for breeding or replacement or purchased as embryos where the cow family members do not make it to third lactation.


The volume of fat and protein produced by each cow each day is a key factor for revenue generation (Read more: Is too much water milking your profits? and 5 things you must consider when breeding for milk production). When that can be done with a lesser volume of water it means less strain on the cow and less water to transport to the milk processor. High output of components means fewer cows needing to be fed and milked to produce a given quantity of fat and protein.  If daily yields are only moderate then feed is wasted feeding too many cows. At the processor more concentrated milk means less water needs to be removed and disposed of. It is a win–win for both the producer and the processor.

To achieve high fat plus protein yields requires that the sires used need to be ranked high genetically for total solids yield. In sire proofs that equates to bulls with 90 kgs fat + protein in Canada and 75 lbs in the USA. Cows should be culled for low total fat + protein yields per day not on volume of milk produced. When purchasing embryos make sure that the genetic merit for fat + protein yield is high.

Udder Health

On a continual basis the requirement for the maximum number of somatic cells in milk is lowered. It is estimated that each case of mastitis costs at least $300 in lost production and drugs. Add to that the extra labor required and the total cost, to all dairy farmers, associated with mastitis is huge.  Sometimes we forgive cows and bulls with poor SCS rating because they have a high rating for a single other trait. That is false economy when you factor in the cost of feed, labour and lost milk revenue. We need to be paying more attention to milk quality in the future than we have in the past.

Animals above 3.00 for SCS should not be used in your breeding program. Better still would be to aim for using bulls that are 2.80 and lower for SCS.  Of note is the fact that as of December 2013 CDN will be producing sire indexes for Mastitis Resistance (Read more: Official Genetic Evaluation for Mastitis Resistance).

Calving Ease

Producers have placed emphasis on calving ease over the past decade. It is now at the point where concern relative to calving difficulty is only mentioned for first calving heifers. Labor is saved with unassisted calvings. As well the dam and calf both get off to better starts. Less drug usage and quicker breeding back of the dam add up to major dollars saved no matter what the herd size.

Bulls receive indexes for both the ease with which their calves are born and for the ease with which their daughters give birth. It is advised to not use bulls that are rated below average for both direct and maternal calving ease.

Other Factors

  • Feet and Legs: Cows without mobility problems save on labor, lost feed and lost revenue.  Use sires that are average or above average for both heel depth and rear legs rear view. Calves and heifers with feet and leg problems seldom get better with age. (Read more: Cow Mobility: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?)
  • Feed Conversion: In all livestock there are genetic differences in the ability to convert feed to end product. As yet we do not know those genetic differences in dairy cattle but we will know them in time. (Read more: Feed Efficiency: The Money Saver and 30 Sires that will produce Feed Efficient Cows) In is a fact that big cows, producing similar volumes to a medium sized cow, can not be as efficient as they must eat feed to maintain their larger body mass. Some (New Zealand, Ireland, NMS formula,…) already have a negative weighting for body size in their total index formula In the future breeders need to be prepared to select for feed efficiency and likely re-think the ideal cow size. Stay tuned. Research is already underway on feed conversion in dairy cattle.
  • Milking Speed: Slow milking cows were once tolerated in tie stall barns even though they required more labor. Now with parlour, rotary and even robotic systems, cows that slow down the parlour process or that mean fewer cows per robot are not tolerated. Sire indexes for milking speed are available on all bulls in Canada and are often available from bull studs in other countries. Avoid using bulls that leave slow milkers.
  • Polled: Labor required and animal set backs after dehorning are negatives at the farm level. For consumers animal treatment/care is often a concern that may affect milk product consumption. Polled is not just trendy it will be the norm in the future. (Read more: Why Is Everyone So Horny For Polled?, From the Sidelines to the Headlines, Polled is Going Mainline! and Polled Genetics: Way of the Future or Passing Fad?),  Genetic tests are now available that accurate identify animals as homozygous or heterozygous for polled. With each passing month the genetic merit for top polled animals for total merit (TPI, LPI NM$,..) is increasing. Producers need to decide when they will start to breed for polled.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Every discipline is important to improving on-farm profits. Research at CDN showed that improved genetics accounted for, at least, 40% of the increase in on-farm profitability. Genetics can help reduce the two biggest on-farm cost – feed and labor.  As well it can help drive up revenue per cow. Conclusion: Genetics can save on feed and labor costs. And Genetics can help generate more profit.

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At an ever increasing rate new equipment and information becomes available that dairy farmers can use to advance the way in which they manage their herds. The early adopters often go out on a limb and install systems on their farms that they hope will make their operations more profitable. Making better decisions or having information that gives advance notice of potential cow problems is critical to increased herd profit.
ML - Herd_navigator_analyse_unit_and_cows_-_9675

New on the Scene

Recently the Bullvine took the opportunity to get close-in on a new piece of equipment by visiting two reference farms. This equipment is called Herd Navigator™ (HN), a product of DeLaval/FOSS, and it has just completed verification in Canada using four Ontario dairy farms. It had been developed, field tested and implemented in Europe and at the present time it is being installed commercially in additional farms in Canada.

In brief what it does is take milk samples from selected cows on selected days and, based on the analysis of the milk, provides reports for herd managers to use. As one would expect, this requires equipment for sampling (a sampler and a sorter) and testing (on-farm mini lab), computer software and linkage to the herd management software used on the farm by the herd manager, the nutritionist or the veterinarian.

VMSFullCow[1]Designed as the next tool for top herds

The focus of HN is cows in robotic and parlour herds from calving to being pregnant again. (Read more: Robotic Milking: More than just automation it’s a new style of herd managment) Nancy Charlton DVM (Nutrition & Herd Management Specialist, DeLaval Canada) started her explanation and demonstration of HN by saying that “…. lets start with the basics. A herd must have an effective cow and heifer transition program. That is a well proven fact. HN is then a tool to make very good managers even better at their job.”  That made me want to listen even harder to Dr Charlton as she very adeptly went through the various procedures and reports for HN.

CHARLTON Pictures 027Multi-Purpose Tool

HN takes a milk sample at prescribed times and provides information on four areas important to herd management and profitability. Users of the HN™ system set up Standard Operating Procedures for all four areas, reproduction, mastitis, ketosis and urea level in the milk. When results for metabolic conditions exceed owner determined levels an alarm sounds (more correctly a report is generated) notifying the herdsman. Acting before a cow becomes a problem means less cost, more production and more profit.

It is a well known fact that managing REPRODUCTION takes detailed recording, considerable staff time, is a significant expense and reduces the average revenue per cow per year. For the time period starting 30 days before the voluntary waiting period until 55 days pregnant progesterone levels are monitored on critical days. Herd managers have access to detailed reports including: changes in progesterone levels; heats and the best time to breed; prolonged post partum anestrous; follicular cysts; luteal cysts; potential pregnancy; and early embryonic loss or abortion.

Life for herd managers would be much simpler if MASTITIS did not occur. But that would be a perfect world. HN uses the milk sample to measure the enzyme Lactate Dehydrogenase (LDH) which is released into the milk in an affected quarter during inflammation. Increasing LDH levels are highly correlated with the increased presence of somatic cells and the early stage of subclinical mastitis.  The herd manager can choose to monitor the situation or to treat the cow immediately. At the very least the manager can look the cow up and make a visual or hands-on assessment. The creators of HN see using LDH as a more accurate way of determining the presence of mastitis. The frequency of testing cows for LDH is recommended as once per day for the first thirty days of lactation and after that it depends on the cow’s history and the herd’s standard operating practice.

The metabolic disease KETOSIS can be a thief of profit for cows by causing the loss of milk, lowering peak milk yield and cost of treatment. HN monitors the concentration of ketone bodies in a cow’ milks early in lactation. Measurements start on day four of lactation and continue until readings indicate there is a small chance of ketosis occurring. It is significant that HN reports on subclinical ketosis. Thus alerting the herd manager to take action before full blown ketosis occurs, either by altering the fresh cows diet or by treating the cow. Recent research indicates that subclinical ketosis is much more prevalent than dairymen are aware of. Potentially all herds are losing production due to subclinical ketosis and do not know it.

The final area that HN monitors is the UREA level in the milk a cow produces. This is similar to the MUN (milk urea nitrogen) service offered by CANWEST DHI but does not require that the owner wait until a milk recording test day.  As yet this part of HN may not get as much use as the three previously mentioned areas. It is important to know if protein level in the diet are too high, just right or too low. Over feeding protein, the expensive part of the ration, costs money while under feeding means a cow’s potential is not being achieved and other feed ingredients are not being fully utilized. From what I heard when speaking with the two herd owners, that I visited, this area has yet to be ‘discovered’ for use by HN owners.

In summary these four areas give herd managers the opportunity to increase the profitability of their herds from just a milk sample.

Information Provided

At any time the herd manager can go to his computer and call up any reports. HN is definitely designed for larger herds that manage cows by groups. It provides information so that individual cows within the groups can have their current problem addressed. Only problem cows need to receive the attention of the herdsman.

Sytse Heeg of Heegstee Farms commented “I only need to give my attention to cows with problems. It would not be possible for my wife and me to manage without HN. We have 110 cows milking on two robots, all the young stock and our family to attend to every day and also the field work during the summer time. We do have assistance from my father part time and a summer student.  I am so much more in control of my herd than I was before HN. And I am getting the results (profit) I wanted to get. Already 4 kgs more milk per cow per day with cows back in-calf as well as very low levels of mastitis and ketosis. In non-busy times it is even possible for us to take a vacation. But don’t forget I can remotely watch what is happening back home.”

At Elmwold Farms (Buchner Families), Jennifer is responsible for searching out the details from their 170 cow 3x herd that on the day I visited were producing, on average,  2.8 kgs (6.2 pounds) of fat & protein per day. When I visited Jennifer was on vacation so father (Chris) and brothers ( Greg and Derek) and cousin (Kevin), over a cold ice tea in the shade on a very hot summer day, described the many ways that their farm uses HN to better manage their herd. Chris Buchner provided the details.  “Our herd is focused on efficient high fat plus protein yield. That is what we are paid for kgs of fat and protein sold off-farm. But it is more than that. We were having too many cows on holidays, aka in the dry pens, too much of the time. We calve the vast majority of our heifers before two years of age so we give a bit of a break in having them calve back but the herd average calving interval is 12.6 – 12.8 months. We are running a 24% pregnancy rate, we average 2.2 inseminations per pregnancy, our reproductive cull rate has gone from 28% down to 22%, the vast majority of our cows are pregnant by 120 days into lactation and using the urea numbers we have been able to lower our TMR from 18 to 17% protein. We purchased HN to improve our daily management of cows by focusing on cows outside the norm and to use our facilities to their maximum. We will soon build additional cow housing and will give more attention to our fresh cows with one pen for fresh heifers only as we already know that they get pushed out of the feed bunk by older cows in the fresh group. We looked at using pedometers but after seeing how much more HN could do we made the decision to purchase it. We are very happy we decided to go this route. Our family operation is growing and I am proud to say that the next generation is keen to be profitable dairy farmers.”

Cost Benefit

Top notch herd managers always want to know the cost benefit of any input, service or tool. The DeLaval website suggest that using HN a herd can increase revenue by $330 US$ (250 euros) per cow per year with annual material costs of 130 US$ per cow and an equipment cost of 500 US$ per cow for a two hundred cow herd. All of these numbers do not include the savings in feed for fewer cows (milking and dry) as well as the need for less housing facilities. Definitely it does require that a herd be of sufficient size to justify the initial cost of the equipment.

Another thing about the HN system is that it  does all the work and testing thus allowing the herd manager to avoid the time to search out cows and do cow side testing. And, best of all, it does it before there is a problem not after the fact.

Muhieddine Labban (Automated Milking Systems Manager at DeLaval) sees the benefits in these ways “I like to call it return on investment with the results being: 1) accurate feeding – lower cost and waste; 2) lower cull rate; 3) lower use of antibiotics; 4) higher production per cow; 5) more effective use of the herd veterinarian; 6) higher pregnancy rate; 7) fewer inseminations lowering costs and semen used; 8) less herd manager frustration; 9) more family time for the dairy producer; and last but not least 10) the use of technology which will encourage the next generation to be dairy farmers”. An impressive list for every herd managers to consider.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

For breeders looking to manage better and increase their per cow profit, more attention to cows needing individual attention is an avenue to pursue. It definitely does pay to have cows reach peak production, avoid mastitis and get back in calf as quickly as possible. Knowing the facts to base decisions on is the way to go.


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How often do you select a mating sire for the reasons you typically cull animals, as opposed to what your perceived ideal cow looks like?  Further to our discussion about what the Perfect Holstein Cow looks like we here at the Bullvine started to ask ourselves, “How often do we choose our matings based on what we think the perfect cow looks like? vs. what our true management needs are?” Far too often sire selection is based on the fantasy of breeding that next great show cow or VG-89-2YR instead of facts needed to breed that low maintenance cow that will stay in your herd for many lactations and produce high quantities of milk.  Do your sire selections overlook your management needs?

Speedy Selection. Long-Lasting Problems

Discernment is the hardest part of sire selection.  Seeing your herd for what it is and what its genetic needs are is step one.  Step two is choosing what will work for you almost three years from now when the daughters of the sires you use today will be entering the milking string.  The old adage was “breed for type and feed for production.”  But how many breeding stock animals have you sold recently based solely on conformation?  How many will you be selling in three years based on their type?  What are the revenue sources for your farm now and in the future?  If your answer is “We get our revenue from the milk cheque from as few cows as possible and with as much profit per cow as possible” then selecting for type could mean that your sire selection is out of alignment with your management needs.

How Can You Tell If You Are You Out of Sync?

One place to determine where your herd has issues is to look at the reasons for and the frequency of culling. Every cow that leaves your herd for any reason other than a profitable sale is an indicator of the issues that could be arising from sire selection that is out of alignment with what is going on in your herd.

The Bullvine found the following information on milking age females that are removed from herds:

  • Over 35% of cows in a herd are replaced annually. That is costly!
  • The top known reasons for culling or removing cows are:
    • Infertility  / reproduction                    23.1%
    • Sold for dairy purposes                       21.4%
    • Mastitis                                               13.8%
    • Feet and Legs                                        9.6%
    • Low production                                     7.6%
    • Total    75.5%
  • The other known reasons for culling or removing cows are:
    • Injury               10.0%
    • Sickness           7.0%
    • Old Age           2.4%
    • Diseases          1.8%
    • Bad Temperament      0.9%
    • Difficult Calving          0.9%
    • Conformation 0.9%
    • Slow Milker                 0.6%
    • Total    24.5%

Are You Breeding to Spend Money or Are you Breeding to Make Money?

You may be comfortable with your culling rate especially if it isn’t too far off “normal”. However when you look closely at the cows that remain in your herd how “needy” are they?  Staff time, vet calls, hoof trimming, semen, drugs, supplies, extra time in the dry cow pen and removing cows from herds before they reach maturity – these all add up to significant dollars down the drain.  Therefore, anything that can be done in sire selection to minimize these costs goes right to improving the financial bottom line.  All unbudgeted costs mean less profit. If an animal is culled early, it does not matter where she placed at the local show or that her sire was a popular bull that left fancy udders.  If he also left poor feet and low fertility, that costs you money.

A More Realistic Approach: Breed for the Bottom Line Not Just the Top Number

Often top bulls for total index are put forward to breeders for their use, without regard for the bull’s limiting factors.  The Bullvine doesn’t support that approach.  We recommendation that minimum sire selection values be set for the reasons cows are culled so that sires used in a herd don’t create new problems while the breeder tries to solve the current ones.

Here are the Bullvine we recommend the following requirements bulls should meet to be considered for use by bottom line focused breeders:

  • In Canada
    • Lifetime Profit Index   > +2000*
    • Daughter Fertility          > 100
    • Somatic Cell Score         < 2.90
    • Feet & Legs                      > +5
  • In USA
    • Total Performance Index        > 2000*
    • Daughter Pregnancy Rate          > 1.0
    • Somatic Cell Score                    < 2.90
    • Feet & Legs Composite               > 1.0

* A high minimum value has been set for both LPI and TPI to address the removal of cows for low production and so animals sold for dairy purposes can be in demand for their milk producing ability.


Every dairy breeder wants a superior herd and wants to eliminate the daily annoyances, costs and loss of valuable cows due to infertility, mastitis and feet problems and low production. Breeders should choose the best sires that correct the actual problems that they face in their herd instead of chasing a fantasy that has nothing to do with their reality.

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Are You Going To Make a Profit This Year?

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Every day during this summer of 2012 dairy breeders are reading about or personally experiencing the challenges of feeding their dairy herd.  The articles in the press deal with the cost of corn and soybeans as well as the quantity and quality for forages preserved or available for purchase.  Since the cost of feed to produce a pound or kilogram of milk is usually 55 to 60% of the cost of production, feeding the dairy herd is extremely important.

In a recent article the Bullvine addressed key factors that contribute to profit on farm ( read Why Dairy Farmers Need To Know Their Key Performance Indicators).  However, for many dedicated North American dairy cattle farmers the immediate challenge is to implement steps that will contribute to or assist with profitability until we have another crop-growing season.  The following ideas are offered based on the results I saw from working with success farms participating in dairy farm management clubs.

A Check List for Managing

  1. Know your facts
    A saying often herd is “If you don’t measure, you can’t manage.”  So taking time to review the details on your last milk cheque, your current feed bills, your daily feed fed and the information for the past two years from your DHI printouts or from your farm management software reports, all are key to getting started.  Also critical to taking positive steps is the farm manager’s attitude to problem solving on farm.  Yes prices received and prices paid are important but most frequently they are mainly outside individual manager’s control.
  2. Output per Cow
    Simply put farms producing over 5 pounds or 2.3 kgs of fat plus protein per cow per day return between 25 to 40% more profit per cow per day than farms producing 4 pounds or 1.8 kgs per cow per day.  Filling the bulk tank with 100 cows producing 55 pounds (25 kgs) or 79 cows producing 70 pounds (32 kgs) is what this equates to.  Those extra 21 mouths to feed are paramount to profit.  Moving the lower producing cows to dry pens, selling below average producers for meat or buying of bringing in, take care to protect biosecurity (read more Biosecurity – How Safe Is Your Dairy or Biosecurity: Control What’s Coming In, Going Out Or Going Around), animal about to calve or recently fresh are all steps that will move the herd to more profit per milking cow per day.
  3. Dry Matter Intake (DMI)
    Average DMI of at least 50 pounds (23 kgs) of feed are achievable.  Herds with DMI’s over 55 pounds (25 kgs) make 15 to 25% more profit per cow per day than herds with a DMI of less than 44 pounds (20 kgs).  However, feed intake averages and profit per cow per day are not achieved by feeding the average cow.  Keys to achieving desired levels of DMI and profit are caring and grouping of cows and heifers three weeks before and after calving, feeding the highest quality forage to the cows producing the most milk and not overfeeding cows later in lactation in any year not just when feeds are in short supply or high in price.
  4. Feed Quality
    Without feed testing or knowing the quality of feeds, be it home grown or purchased feeds, decisions and corrective actions cannot be taken.  Managing for profit and using feed resources wisely depend knowing the products you are working with.
  5. The Heifer Herd
    Managing for profit is greatly influenced by how the heifer herd is feed and managed.  Not raising all heifer calves, feeding heifers according to their needs (high quality feed to heifers in their first three months), using milk replacer instead of keeping extra cows so calves can get be feed whole milk and breeding heifers to calve by 24 months of age all need re-consideration in times of tight feed supply, lower quality feeds, and expensive feedstuffs.  Having 0.7 or 1.1 heifers per milking cow can significantly affect profit through feed cost, labour costs and overhead costs. (read 10 Ways Cool Calves Beat The Heat)
  6. Manage Reproduction
    In times of high costs, lack of plentiful feed supply and pressure on the time to manage, managers take steps (often inadvertently) not to check as often for heats or eliminate regular visits by the herd reproduction specialists.  Current estimates run between $75 to $110 for every heat that a cow or heifer is either not bred on or does not conceive on.  Of course that cost is a function of taking more feed, more labour, more animals on-farm and more time to manage.
  7. The Basics are Important
    We all know how nice it is to have fresh air to breathe, our climate controlled and a fresh glass of clean water.  Well animals are no different.  Clean waterers, lack of manure build-up near animals and clean air all lead to high performance by dairy cattle.  Documented and delivered herd protocols are important and can be neglected in times of stress including when feedstuffs are in short supply.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Success in business very often is associated with managing to be ahead of challenges rather than in reaction to circumstances.  Profits on dairy farms depend on providing the crucial trinity, feed, environment and genetics.  Doing only two of the three is not sufficient.


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