Archive for Dairy Cattle Management

Why ALL Dairy Farmers Should Get Excited About Proof Day!

For the 1% of breeders who deal in seed stock Proof Days are like Christmas 3x times a year.  But for the remaining 99% of dairy breeders proof days, the days when the latest Genetic Evaluations are released, are not that big a deal.  But they should be.

The following are three reasons all dairy producers should be checking out the latest genetic evaluations.

All producers should be using the best genetics possible

Analysis conducted as a cooperative effort between Canadian Dairy Network (CDN) and the milk-recording agency in Québec, Valacta, examined the association between the average profit per cow at the herd level and the genetic potential of the herd for various traits.


Figure 1 shows the relationship between the average LPI and the average profit per cow per day in each herd studied. While there are some exceptions to the rule, the dark line in the graph reflects the average relationship across the LPI scale, which indicates that herds with higher average LPI levels of their cows also have higher profit values. This positive correlation between LPI and profit clearly shows that genetics is a significant contributing factor but that management also plays a major role. On average, for every 100-point difference in LPI at the herd level there is an increase in profit per cow per year of $50, which accumulates from year to year. From a sire selection perspective, this equivalence translates to a difference of $50 more profit per daughter per year for every 200-point difference in the sire’s LPI value.  Based on a 50% conception rate, that would indicate that the semen from a sire who is 400 LPI points higher than the average sire, should cost $50 more.  Applying this to the current sires available, by using a sire such as AltaRazor who has an LPI of +3038 you will generate and extra $187.50 compared to a sire with an LPI of 1500.  This is from direct daughter profitably and does not even factor in the increased performance of any progeny this cow would produce.  So then investing $50 to $100 more for semen that will deliver over $180 in return is certainly a profitable decision even for commercial milk producers.

The Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side of the Fence

I often hear many producers quote the minimum levels for certain traits that they are willing to use.  The challenge with that is while this approach is great for setting basic criteria, it fails to look at how these sires compare to other sires.  By using “any” sire that meets their criteria they are missing out on maximizing the genetics gain, and therefore the profitability of their herd.  As demonstrated above setting a minimum threshold, instead of going for maximum return, is leaving dollars on the table, and not in the milk check.  Then there is the case where some milk producers prefer to deal with only one semen sales representative or A.I. company.  No A.I. company has all the best sires (Read more: Stud Wars: Episode II – April 2014), so by employing this practices any savings or efficiencies you gain from negations, are negated by the amount you are costing yourself in loss of genetic potential.  (Read more: Rumors, Lies, and other stuff Salesmen will tell you and Are There Too Many Semen Salesmen Coming In The Lane?)

Are You Sure You Are Getting What You Pay For?

With the latest reports indicating that genomic young sire use is approaching 60% in North America, many producers have embraced genomics in a significant way (Read more: Why 84% of Dairy Breeders Will Soon Be Using Genomic Sires!).  I have even come across herds that have gone to 100% genomic young sire use.  With such a heavy usage of sires that are 60-70% reliable, are you sure that the sires that you are using are delivering on the other end?  A great way to check this is to see how the sires you are investing in, are doing when they receive their official daughter proof.  Sure that may not mean that you go back and use these sires once they are proven, but it does help you get a better understanding of the reliability of the genetics that you have invested in.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

I am not saying that all dairy producers should be waiting with baited breath at 8 am on proof day.  However, there is certainly value in taking the time to check out the latest sire evaluations, to see how the sires you have been using are performing and what other sires are out there that could help you increase the profitability of your herd.  No matter what your management style, there are certainly enough reasons for you to get excited on proof day.

Check out the latest Holstein Sires Proofs in our Genetics Section

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.







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Don’t Blame Your Cows for Lack of Production…

Maybe you’ve seen this happen.  You’re so confident in yourself and your milking team that you consciously or unconsciously have started skipping a few steps.  Or, you have gradually taken on new staff – perhaps a family member or someone selected from the wider community — and you assumed that you didn’t need to review or test their understanding of milking basics because, after all, they know all about it. Then suddenly you’re presented with proof of low milk production and you don’t know how it happened. It just sneaks up on you. Fortunately there’s always a reason.  In this case, it’s up to you to find both the cause and the solution to declining milk production.

Are Your Records Measuring Up?

You have to start with your records.  If you cannot clearly identify the problem, you will find it doubly hard to come up with a way to solve it. Ideally, your milking team is well aware of the benchmarks you are targeting.  Check your records and see if gaps have developed in the achieving the following goals:

  • SCC UNDER 200,000. Evaluate the herd for a high incidence of subclinical or clinical mastitis.
  • CMT: 70% of the herd with linear score of 1 and 2
  • TEAT HEATH: 80% of the herd with no teat end problems. Erosion, eversion, cuts or sores dealt with on a scheduled basis.
  • AVERAGE DAILY PRODUCTION: minimum of 70-75 pounds of 4% fat corrected milk.
  • PEAK PRODUCTION: Set parameters so that you know if heifers and second lactation or older animals are reaching peak production.
  • LACTATION LENGTH: 290 to 310 days with an average length of 296. Anything less than 270 days is considered a short lactation.
  • DRY PERIOD:  Check to see if dry cows have had a dry period of not more than 6 weeks.

Testing. Testing.

  1. Re-check milking procedures. Double check for efficient milk practices.
  2. Take milk samples and run culture and sensitivity tests.
  3. Screen rations or individual feeds for molds and mycotoxins.
  4. Test milking equipment. Poor letdown can be caused by extremes in vacuum.
  5. Test rations and forages to identify deficiencies or imbalances.
  6. Test to find toxicities from chemicals, fluoride and other chemicals.
  7. Test water for impurities or anything that might lower intake.
  8. Stray voltage should be examined when other obvious factors appear normal.

There are obviously other tests that can be performed based on your individual goals and strategies.  The point is not the number of tests. It is about the quality of the data that you have for informed decision making.

Don’t Assume You Always “Know” Best of “Do” Best.

Faulty milking practices always contribute to lower milk peaks and shorter lactations.

  1. Let-down: Poor milk letdown obviously has a negative effect on milk production.  There are many causes that can be determined and managed.  Some cows need a second stimulation to fully let down their milk.  This needs to be recognized, recorded and allowed-for in the milking routine SOP.
  2. Timing:
  3. Too soon or Too Late. When the milking machine is attached is very important.  After proper prepping, milking should be within 0.5 to 2 minutes. Being put on too soon or too late after preparation causes problems.
  4. Too long. When the milking system requires more than six minutes of machine time per cow, problems can arise.
  5. Sanitation:

In the dairy business, you must keep constant vigilance to avoid bacteria.  You don’t want it to infect the milking cows.  You don’t want it in the milk. It’s false economy to save time or money by skipping cleaning procedures.  In the end, you could be facing a problem that is not only hard to eradicate once it has set it, but in some cases could mean the loss of cows.

Back to Basics to Turn Around Low Milk Production

Now that you have some numbers to work with, it’s time to go back to the beginning. It’s like baseball, which I love.  Batters (especially the good ones) are known for stripping down their swing and rebuilding it. However, the rebuild has to have a foundation.  It’s not enough to continuously tweak something here, and something else there just because your stats are “suddenly” showing that you are striking out more often. When you do that, you get so far from the foundation that it becomes all miss and no hits!  Batters (and their coaches) start at the beginning, rebuilding piece by piece, doing the hard work of getting back to the basics. They do the hard work of rebuilding by grinding through what was once simple, all over again.

Here’s the Secret

Make sure you have your Standard Operating Procedures in place, and that everyone knows what is expected. The secret to success isn’t about making your own rules.  It’s all about rules that are effective and that everyone completes properly – every single day – exactly the same way.  On dairy operations, there is a risk of slippage (or suddenly being faced with low production) the moment we think we no longer need the foundational elements that made us successful milk producers in the first place.

Nine Basic Steps that should be Part of Your Standard Milking Procedures

  1. Dry-wipe dirt and debris from the first cow’s udder.
  2. Pre-dip all four teats with the green dip cup.
  3. Strip two squirts of milk from each teat and observe for abnormal milk. (*You should have a SOP in place for dealing with abnormal milk.)
  4. Return to the first cow and thoroughly wipe with a clean towel.
  5. Attach the unit to the first cow and adjust.
  6. Repeat steps 5 and 6 with the second and third cows in the side.
  7. Begin at step 1 with the fourth cow on the side and repeat procedure with each group of 3 cows until all 12 units are attached.
  8. When all units have detached, post dip all cows and release.

Once again the perfect SOP is not necessarily these exact eight steps.  The best SOP for milking procedures at your dairy is the one that is developed by your milking team, practiced, revised and performed daily, and that gets the best production from the milking herd.  No surprises!

Eat Well! Live Long! Milk Often!

As discussed so far, there are many little things that can add up to the significant problem of declining milk production. If none of the preceding scenarios are contributing to your situation, maybe it is time to look at the age of your cattle, the nutrition provided for your herd and finally, milking frequency.  Consider this three-point proposition: 1. Cows who live longer milk more. 2. Cows who eat more give more milk. 3. Cows who are milked more often give more milk.  After all, cows need optimum health and energy to produce to optimum levels. With the right nutrition in place, then check your system to reduce the stress and strain.  More frequent milking can be another way to enhance udder health, increase production and extend the milking life of your cows.

Time to Test Again!

Perhaps you have come full circle in your strategic review, with all of your staff involved, and you are certain that all the SOP procedures are being followed by all milking staff.  At this point, any problems in milking performance that are discovered must be a result of a more severe deficiency either in the design of your SOPs or with the health of your herd.  Call in your consultants: nutritionist, veterinarians, feed suppliers or other dairy peers whose opinion and objective viewpoint can give you a different perspective. It’s never too late and getting the best data is the place to start. Information is the key.  So once again in addition to the testing previously outlined, the following information should be tracked and posted:

  • Somatic cell counts
  • Standard plate counts
  • Preliminary incubation counts

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Don’t blame your cows. Consistently good milk production is all about doing the simple things. It is built on the foundation elements that we know we should do, over and over, day after day. Success means following a few of the most simple rules and following them correctly and consistently.  It isn’t glamorous but perfecting the basics works whether you’re goal is hitting home runs or milking a high producing dairy herd. Remember don’t blame your cows for lack of production…you’re the problem, and you can be fixed!




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The Lost Art of Dairy Cow Stockmanship. When Push Comes to Nudge.

The expression “until the cows come home” can mean one of two things.  Either the cows are expected to come home for milking and will be there or else it can mean waiting a very, very long time.  Getting aligned with the routine of these creatures of habit is a daily activity on dairy farms and when it moves along smoothly it`s great but too often the opposite is true and it becomes a daily frustration. When cows refuse to move easily from one location to another or one activity to another, it costs time and money.  Both bovine and human stress levels can skyrocket with a corresponding rise in injuries.

It`s Time to Get A Handle on Handling

When day to day interaction between cows and handlers results in injuries to either party there are lost workdays and decreased milk production. It’s easy to point the finger of blame at human handlers. However, for this interaction to work successfully both sides have to be calm.  Handlers need to calm plus reassuring.  As a result, cows will be calm plus comfortable.

Is Your Cattle Comfort Checklist as Ticked Off as Your Cows?

  • Cows behave unnaturally and stand or lie down uneasily.
  • Patches of rubbed-off hair and injuries to hocks and knees indicate that, when rising or lying down, cows are repeatedly rubbing on stall partitions or neck rails.
  • When cows are moving, they have an unsteady gait.  If they are walking slowly, or timidly, with rear feet spread wide, this is a sign of poor traction and that something is negatively affecting their confidence in their footing.
  • Mastitis, sore feet and swollen hocks are also signs that handling needs attention.
  • If more than 20 percent of the cows defecate in the parlor, the cause needs to be determined.
  • All concrete should be grooved to make it less slippery.
  • Check stray voltage
  • Confirm that milkers are calm and reassuring as they handle and milk cows.
  • Maintain routine contact with animals to retain familiarity

Quick Changes … Get Cow Comfort Corrected

Cow Kindness not Over-Rated!

Temple Grandin, remarkable advocate of animal caretaking, Karen Lancaster, from England, and other experts who consult and provide cow handling seminars are agreed on one basic premise. “When the cows are happy, we know they eat more, when they eat more they make more milk.” Results report that cow comfort can mean the difference of several thousand pounds of rolling herd average milk production between two herds of similar genetics and rations.  Simply upgrading a cow’s surroundings to light, clean and airy can radically move the following five performance parameters in the right direction.

  • Production
  • Performance
  • Efficiency
  • Safety
  • Animal Welfare
  • Quality of life

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that light, clean and airy can improve the same five criteria for the human dairy staff as well: production; performance; efficiency; safety; personal welfare and quality of work-life.

Put Yourself in the Cow’s Position

When we are consulting in business or trying to improve our personal working conditions, we often advise peers and clients to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. It isn’t bad advice when considering the best ways to handle our bovine workforce. Imagine yourself in the milking set up, the stall or the alleyways and pastures in between.  Consider the logistics of size and ask yourself if this would be an area you would want to walk, sleep or work hard in? Cold, dark and damp are probably NOT the three top features you would be seeking out.

If you are eager to remind me that some cows are just “difficult,” perhaps it’s time to consider the same label can be applied to complaining cow handlers.  I continue to be amazed that people who wouldn’t think of yelling at each other, or pushing or shoving, find that style an easy one to adopt when moving calves, heifers or cows.

One Video is Worth a 1000 Words

You can find a lot of enlightening advice from online videos on cattle handling.

No man or animal likes surprises or walking (or being pushed) into dangerous situations and it is important to give consideration to the actual sightlines of the animals.  When calves and cows learn to trust that you have their interests at heart, they will be ready and responsive to your commands.

Cattle are creatures of habit and they have long memories.  It’s a good idea to “start the way you want to end.”  From first contact as calves … to final turnout to greener pastures… your interaction with herd and individuals should be calm, consistent and kind.

Talk Softly and DON’T Carry a Big Stick!

Dr. Joep Driessen, Director/Owner of CowSignals Training Company, says research shows that women get 10 percent more milk out of cows.” He suggests that farmers modulate their barn voices to more soothing tones. “Women are more gentle and cows like the soft voice of the women more.”  All cow handling consultants insist that shouting at cows won’t help, because loud human voices stress cows even more than being physically slapped.
Curt Pate, well known for low stress cattle handling, has a list of tips which include the following:

  1. Make sure the cattle can see you.
  2. Don’t make sharp, loud noises.
  3. Don’t rush the animals.
  4. Use cattle prods and other equipment as little as possible.

“Farmers who don’t follow these guidelines and rush their animals harass them with noise or prod them unnecessarily risk raising their stress, increasing sickness and lowering production,” says Pate.

When trying to move cows, the handler needs be aware of his/her timing, angle, speed and direction of approach.

Obviously, the handler has to plan ahead where he/she wants to move the cows so that clear signals for the direction can be given.

If the handler can’t see a cow’s eye, the cow can’t see the handler and so the cow won’t be able to respond to the handler’s signals.

Part of the timing during cattle handling is to give cows time to react to the handler’s signals and to release the pressure once cows are starting to do what you asked of them.

Who Needs the Training First? Cows? Handlers?

Many times a situation on the dairy farm has become so repetitive that the only interaction certain individuals have with the cows is negative. It is necessary to see yourself as part of a team that involves the cows.  Good behavior should be rewarded and repeated.

An interesting finding of one survey was that herds that had previous stockmanship training tended to have about 1,760 pounds higher rolling herd average than herds that did not – even after accounting for the herd size.

Studies have shown that if cows are stressed, adrenalin will diminish the oxytocin response and their milk let down will be impaired. As a result, cows will not milk out and producers will lose milk.  In addition, stressed cows are more likely to defecate or urinate as well as kick in the parlor – none of which are particularly pleasant for the people working in the parlor and will likely affect their attitude towards work, as well.

Regularly revisit animal handling protocols to determine if updates are needed.

DIY or Experts … Who do You Turn to?

Training is traditionally done by herd owners or managers who have learned cattle handling predominantly from family members or by trial-and-error. However, today, in particular producers of larger farms (>200 milking cows), managers seek out low-stress handling training seminars to learn more about best cattle handling practices.  There is an abundance of resources to take your herd handling to the next level.  Online articles and videos are available from world renowned experts such as Temple Grandin and Dr. Joep Driessen.   Several well-respected animal handlers are available for onsite farm demonstrations or seminars for groups. Of course, you can send out a call for help and your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn connections may be ready to give you help.

Bullvine Bottom Line

There are many good reasons to improve, modify and make over your cattle handling techniques.  With daily opportunities for improvement, it’s safe to say that, although the practice may not make perfect, it can forge a willing and productive partnership between cows and farm staff.

Now everyone can handle that! 



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There`s Rumen for Improvement. Happy Bugs=Happy Cows!

“A nutritionist and a dairy farmer walk up to a feedbunk.” It sounds like the start of a lame joke, but with shrinking margins and rising input costs feeding dairy cattle is no laughing matter.  It would be really nice if the pastoral idyll of rows of cows contentedly chewing their cud was achievable simply by filling a feedbunk.  However, not only is this picture not the simple equation of feed in equaling milk out, but in actual fact depends more on what you feed the bugs in your cows’ stomachs than it does on what you think you’re feeding the cows.  Ruminants are hosts to numerous microbes and the microbes need to survive and multiply in order for milk to be produced.  So to put it simply, “If you want better rumen health, you need better rumen bugs!”

From Tongue to Dung – Travelling the Fermentation Road

The whole process is one of digestion. Digestion begins when cows draw feed into their mouths with their tongues.  Each mouthful passes into the rumen, flows to the abomasums and then through the small intestine, the large intestine and then out!

For the most part, this entire process is unseen to the human eye.  Except if there’s a problem (such as a twisted abomasums that can be felt by touching the cow’s side) or, when it is finished and the manure gives visual clues to issues.  Of course, out of sight out of mind isn’t the best management tool when you’re trying to effectively monitor or set up dairy cattle diets.  Nutritionists and veterinarians use scientific methods to study the feed and the bugs.  Fortunately the tools being used are continually evolving, as specialist can make the rumen mystery more manageable.  Using lab analysis, ingredient evaluation and computer programs they measure, calculate, forecast and establish precise diets, customized for the dairy cow and the particular operation.

Set Goals and Test, Test, Test

The primary goal of a sound, profitable dairy feeding program is to convert forages into milk.  With feed costs representing 50 to 60 percent of the cost of producing milk, knowing the nutrient content is very important from an economic perspective.  All forages which will be fed to milking cows, heifers and dry cows need to be tested.  All lots of hay should be sampled using a hay probe on 10 or more bales of hay.  Sampling one or two bales is not an accurate way to sample a lot.  A `lot ‘of hay is defined as those bales which were harvested from the same field and cutting.  Your local feed company or extension agent can help you get your forages tested.  Testing forages and balancing rations for heifers and dry cows is critical in order to get heifers to grow efficiently and to prevent dry cows from losing or gaining too much weight.

Every Body Works Better on a Schedule

As we turn our attention to focus on fermentation we have to consider the effect of timing.  Cows and rumen bugs are both creatures of habit.  We all know how dairy cows get into a routine and expect to be milked at the same time every day.  A variation of much more than 10 minutes causes stress.  If feed is expected every day at 10 am, 10:45 will further upset the routine.  The goal is that every day is exactly like the day before and the day after.  Consistency is good not only for the cows but for the rumen bugs too.

Don’t Upset Your Cows or Their Rumens

Rather than upset the rumen vat with constant changes, subpar feed or feed that is presented erratically, it is important for rumen health to make diet changes gradually.  If daily handling is calm, routine and without overcrowding in feed and resting areas, the daily digestion process will be stress free and more likely to be effective. Rumen fermentation can be altered by stresses.  Spoiled silage has a dramatic impact on rumen fermentation and dry matter intake.  Optimum rumen fermentation requires consistent nutrient supply.  If excess spoiled feed is consumed, there is a distinct likelihood that desirable rumen bugs are being killed off.  Even minor changes can have a dramatic effect on the numbers of microbes and even cause a particular bug to become more dominant.  This becomes a domino effect that could result in poor digestion and other problems.

If She is Not Making Milk Targets, You haven’t fed Her Rumen

Too often dairy managers confuse feeding the cow and feeding the rumen. Farmers should work closely with their nutritionist in designing a feeding program so that the nutrient needs of the rumen microbes are met in order for the cow to produce milk.  Once the feeding program has been designed, implementing the feeding program becomes the next critical step.  The final measure of the diet is determined when milk is produced. If the goal was to produce 80 pounds of milk and you only get 70 pounds, there is a discrepancy somewhere and it must be found.

As rumen modeling becomes a more and more exact science, it is important to remember that no model will correct for poor management.

New Ways to Monitor Microbes

As in other areas of dairy cattle management, the rumen is benefitting from new technologies. Gene sequencing and measurement of the expression of genes (genomics), proteins (proteomics) and metabolites (metabolomics) can now be used to better differentiate microbe species in the rumen.  Using these tools it is reported that the rumen contains over 7,000 bacterial and 1,500 archael (single-celled but distinct from bacteria) species.  There are also numerous protozoa, fungi and bacteriophages.  Studying these organisms by use of new approaches is making it easier to understand the physical structure of different ingredients in the rumen and how they impact rumen function.  The payoff is better health and more efficient use of dietary nutrients.  All in all the process is complicated and speedy and analysis needs to provide the best information before the fermentable ingredients escape the rumen.

Happy Bugs Happy Cows

Maximizing rumen function means we work to maximize microbial activity.  It takes energy to produce milk.  Extracting as much energy as possible from the fiber components (NDF digestibility) is the goal. It is necessary to maximize microbial protein production through microbial growth (high quality amino acid supply). For milk production and profitability the goal is to formulate diets that utilize the rumen to the fullest extent.  Supplying the right nutrients, calmly and consistently is the formula for contented milk-producing cows.  Cud chewing is the external sign but it takes good planning, delivery, monitoring and testing to confirm that the “healthy bugs, healthy cows” two step is at work in your herd.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Happy Bugs.  Healthy Cows.  More milk.  Fewer vet visits.   From the feedbunk to the bank, improved rumen performance putting more dollars on YOUR Bottom Line




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Feed Efficiency: The Money Saver

Fed up? Losing money? Start Tracking Feed Efficiency. The current lack of forages for dairy cattle in North America and high grain prices globally has brought feed front and center on most dairymen’s radar screen. Since for most herds feed costs vary between 50% to 60 % of the dairy’s operational costs, the current higher costs are narrowing on-farm margins. In some cases it has resulted in farms downsizing their milking herd, selling off their heifer herd and for some farms an exit from the dairy business. To say the least dairy farmers are having to address something foreign to most of them – the amount and cost of the feed their herd is consuming.

New Territory for Dairy Farmers

Given that dairy cattle breeding, to a very large extent, has ignore any genetic aspects to a cow’s ability to convert feed into milk, the idea of culling cows that do not convert well is an unheard of practice. Seeing that this subject is new to most breeders, The Bullvine decided to delve a little deeper into what is known and what investigation is underway when it comes to the efficiency with which cows convert their feed to products humans can consume.

Feed In. Dollars Out. It’s Hard to Capture FIDO.

It is costly and time consuming to capture individual cow feed consumption, so producers and their feed advisors have taken the approach of feeding the herd or groups within the herd and monitoring the production, feeds costs and the returns over feed costs. Only in research herds has there been any attention paid to individual cows and their efficiency of conversion or return over feed cost.  And then only for cows on feed composition trials and nothing on a cow or sire’s daughters genetic merit for feed conversion. So to put it simply the industry has said – feed them more, balance the diet differently, add some micronutrients, have adequate fibre in the diet, etc. because we have not been able to address the cow’s genetic ability to convert feed to milk.

What We Know about What’s Eating You

Some facts about feeds, feeding animals and feed costs include:

  • The poultry and swine industries have paid considerable attention, for quite some time now, to feed conversion / feed efficiency. With much success especially in      poultry meat industries. In beef and sheep feed conversion for animals being finished in feedlots is an important profit factor.
  • In dairy cattle, feed conversion ability includes all aspects – feeding for growth, production and maintenance.  We do not always think about the extra cost to grow heifers larger or to maintain a large versus a medium sized cow. By the way the Net Merit index does include a 6% weighting on cow size. And it is a negative weighting so larger cows are penalized for their extra size. So if you have been using the Net Merit index you will already be indirectly breeding for feed efficiency.
  • Level of milk production very much depends on the amount of feed consumed by a cow (commonly known as Dry Matter Intake). But we do not know the degree of correlation between volume consumed and feed efficiency.
  • Recent cost studies show that milking cow feed costs on individual farms vary from 20 to 35% of milk revenue. That variation is significant! So the opportunity to make progress in returns over feed costs is out there.
  • Given the wide variety of feeds and feed practices on dairy operations, an average feed cost per milking cow per day on individual farms can be anywhere from $4.00 to $8.00.
  • Every day dairy farmers have happen but do not monitor or comprehend differences in their cows’ ability to convert their diet into milk revenue. Depending on lactation numbers and stage of lactation a cow consumes 1 kg of dry matter to producer between 0.8 kg and 1.8 kgs of fat or energy corrected milk. Differences in milk, fat and protein production are monitored on-farm however cow differences in feed conversion efficiency are not.

Measuring the Future: You are What THEY Eat

Farmers and their nutritional advisors will continue to fine-tune the diets of cows. That’s a given. Gains in the returns over feed costs will be made by fine tuning diets and by adjusting the management and environments for cow and heifers.

However if the swine and poultry industries have been able to genetically enhance their species’ ability to convert feeds to meat or eggs, then is there not an opportunity for dairy cattle to also be bred for feed conversion efficiency?

It should be possible to breed for heifers that grow more efficiently and cows that convert feeds more efficiently into the milk needed to produce the products consumers want and will buy. If through more efficient milk cows there could be $0.33 more profit per cow per day, which amounts to an extra net income of $25,550 per year for a 200 cow milking herd. Nothing to be sneezed at.

From a Pile of Feed to a Pail of Milk?  Where’s the Genetics DATA?

However the challenge remains how to the get data for use in on-farm decision making and for determining the genetic difference between animals and bloodlines for feed efficiency. Well in fact there are some keen researchers in the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Australia in association with countries with national data bases used for genetic evaluation addressing this challenge. Currently they have studies underway to measure feed intake and cow outputs for cows on research trails. After obtaining the data they will correlate the efficiency results with the DNA (snips) makeup of the cows. In the USA alone there will be over 8,000 cows currently being studied.

Within a year the dairy industry can expect to see some preliminary results of this research work. But genomic indexes will only be the start. I expect that on-farm data capture software and systems will become available to measure a cow’s feed intake. The data from such systems will have value both at the farm level and at the genetic evaluation level.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Stay tuned for what will be new genetic evaluations and animal genomic indexes for feed conversion efficiency. It could take up to a decade for there to be accurate indexes and wide use made of the indexes but it will come fast once the basics building blocks are in place. Even a 5% gain in feed conversion efficiency in dairy cattle will be worth billions of dollars annually to the global dairy industry. Once again opportunity knocks at our doors.

Looking for more on Feed Efficiency check this out – Holstein vs. Jersey: Which Breed Is More Profitable?

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