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Learn from The Best Herds – What Programs and Strategies Do They Use to Maximize Performance

Dairy Farmers gauge their practices and performance by comparing their herds to those of fellow farmers. In Canada one way to compare dairy herds that participate in Lactanet’s recording, testing and management services, is the annual Herd Management Score Report.

Herd Management Formula

The six criteria in this herd comparison formula are: Milk Value (50% of weighting); Udder Health (15%); Calving Interval (10%); Longevity (10%); Herd Efficiency (10%); and Age at First Calving (5%).

On seeing the results published by Lactanet early in 2021, The Bullvine asked – “So what is known about the results for top herds, especially their genetics, the improvement services top herds employ and what are top herds planning for future years?”

Top Herds Surveyed

To dig deeper, The Bullvine conducted a phone survey of twelve, top 0.5%, herds. The herds surveyed, from across Canada, were the top herds by breed (Holstein, Jersey & Ayrshire), the top herds by region (W Canada, Ontario, Quebec & E Canada), the top organic herd and four additional herds selected at random from the top ten Canadian managed dairy herds.

How Do Top Herds Perform?

As would be expected these top twelve herds on average performed at extremely high levels (Table 1).

Table 1 -Top Managed Herds (12x) Performance

Criteria   Holstein(8x) Other Breeds/Organic(4x)
Average Number of Cows   116 64
Kgs Fat / Cow / Day   1.81 (4.0#) 1.52 (3.35#)
Kgs Protein / Cow / Day   1.47 (3.24#) 1.12 (2.47#)
Average SCC   115,000 154,000
Age at First Calving (months)   22.6 22.4
Average Calving Interval (months)   12.8 12.4
Longevity (% cows in 3rd+ lactation)   52 50
Herd Efficiency (% of herd in milk)   87 86
Animal Housing  Free Stalls 5 1
  Packs 1 0
  Tie Stalls 2 3
Milking Frequency 2X 3 3
  3X 3 1
  Robot 2 0

The Canadian milk supply managed system is based on a herd’s daily production of kgs of fat. As a result, daily fat yield per cow per day is on the minds of farmers in all aspects of their dairy enterprise – genetics, nutrition and management. The daily fat and protein production per cow for the twelve herds are exceptional. Payment to farmers for the milk they ship is based on fat, protein and other solids volumes. Therefore, having high protein yields per cow per day, is also important.

Milk Sales have a 50% weighting in the Management Score formula. It is not surprising that the very top herds stand out for daily production of fat and protein.

With ninety milking cows being the average dairy herd size in Canada, it is noteworthy that the Holstein herds combine superior performance with the ability to take advantage of the economies of scale. Both of which significantly contribute to herd profitability. Additionally, two categories where all twelve herds stand out are Calving Interval and Age at First Calving.

Which Programs and Services Do Top Herds Use?

Dairy farmers rely on programs and services to achieve superior performance. Table 2 shows the usage rate for a multitude of programs and services for the twelve herds surveyed.

Table 2 – Programs & Services Used by Top Mananged Herds

Percent of Herds Using      
100% Lactanet Services (recordin, testing, management),  A.I., TMR, Herd Health (including ultra sounding),    
  Animal Identification & Traceability   Automated Milker Take-Off
80-99% Beef Semen on low cows Sexed Semen on Heifers  
  Transition Cow Program Various Herd Management Softwares  
  Multiple Herd & Farm Advisory Services    
60 – 79% Type Classification Electronic Activity and Rumination Monitoring  
  Various Apps – monitoring events, performance,…    
Also mentioned Genomic Testing, Use Only Genomic / Proven Sires, Ovsynch/CIDR,     

Some additional interesting facts reported during the phone surveys include:

  • 50% of the farms have a family member employed off-farm in the agricultural industry (veterinarians, veterinary technicians, cheese/ice cream store owner, chicken broiler farm owner, salespersons – seeds, equipment, farm supplies, …)
  • 75% of the farms have a family member elected to serve their community or agriculture – municipal councilors, directors of local, provincial and national farmer organizations and directors of agricultural industry advisory service organizations.
  • These farms often share farming machinery with neighbors. One herd has a neighbor that prepares and delivers their TMR to their herd.

Traits Top Herds Select For

 Sire selection was always mentioned by survey participants as being especially important.  Whereas cow families and awareness of female lineage were not considered in decision making by most farms. 80% of the farms reported using sexed semen on heifers. Beef semen is used on all the farms for 30% to 70% of the inseminations for milking cows. The survey did not ask if the farm had decreased the number of heifers being raised but many responders volunteered, that with sexed semen, they are now using fewer A.I. services to dairy sires.

The traits important in sire selection for these top herds are listed in Table 3.

Table 3 – Traits Top Managed Herds Use in Sire Selection

Percent Usage by Herds    
100% Fat Yield & Fat %  
80-99% Milk Yield Protein Yield & Protein %
  Health Traits (including SCC)  
  Feet & Legs Longevity
60-79% Udders Fertility Traits
Also Mentioned Milking Speed, Chest Width, Overall Type, a2a2,   

These herds have high production, yet the owners still place their primary trait emphasis on milk yield and milk components. Only three herds mentioned that they select for overall conformation. Some herd owners commented that their herds were not in need of improvement in final score and calving ease.

For these twelve herds their model cows are productive, healthy, mobile, require minimal labor and are efficient converters. Many responders reported that they do not use sire mating services and that after selecting sires that will improve their herd, they use the sires randomly.

Where Top Herds Are Headed

The responders to the survey were very forthcoming in their plans for the future. Some of the plans shared include:

  • Owners plan to buy additional daily fat production quota and to bring family members into their operations. Quality of life, including time for family, was mentioned as being important.
  • Some owners mentioned that they had conducted genomic testing on animals some years back, but they did not see benefit so stopped testing. It is interesting that some are now returning to genomic testing calves as they can see future benefit for both genetic improvement and improving management.
  • Many owners reported planning to improve their calves, heifers, dry cows and fresh cow programs and facilities now that they have outstanding performance in their milking herds.
  • Most owners mentioned plans to purchase new on-farm technology in order to have the most accurate and best data in order to make improved decisions.
  • Individually owners reported considering ways to generate increased revenue or to reduce costs, including producing specialty milk (organic, a2a2, … etc.), having more cash crops, starting new livestock enterprises (i.e. broilers) and decreasing feed costs.
  • A couple of responders commented that attention needs to be given by the dairy industry to producing milk the processors can make into products consumers will buy and implementing on-farm practices that consumers see as necessary in order for them to buy milk products.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The survey of the very top managed Canadian dairy herds clarifies information that every dairy farmer can use. Discerning on-farm service providers – data capture services, business/financial advisors, nutrition programs, genetic programs, animal welfare/housing, environmental programs – can use the information from these top farmers to improve the services they provide.

It all comes down to dairy farm productivity, efficiencies and sustainability. It was very encouraging for The Bullvine to interact with twelve very progressive dairy farmers. These twelve top managed herds have both a vision and a plan for their farms and herds. They have achieved superior performance, yet they are planning to be even better dairy farmers in the future..

The Bullvine thanks Harley Nicholson for his generous time and commitment in conducting the surveys. Special thanks goes to the herd owners for their participation and for sharing their futuristic approaches for dairying in Canada.



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