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Does precision matter?

Jeff Reneau

Webster defines precision as the quality of being precise; working with exactness or accuracy. Certainly in regard to dairy herd management precise attention to detail is a hallmark of productive and profitable dairy farms. Indeed there is a long list of examples of how precise attention to detail pays off.

Over the past 50 years through countless scientific advances in genetics, nutrition, feeding and management, the modern dairy cow has become a milk production phenomenon. Keeping these metabolic Olympiads at the top of their game requires that we are also at the top of our game and you all know this means a lot of hard work. During the past 30 years we mechanized and automated to ease the burden of physical labor and designed more cow-friendly facilities. We have expanded herd size and achieved significant improvements in labor efficiency. Thoughtfully organized and intensely administered by well trained employees, these innovations enable us to feed and manage cows in groups that meet the needs of most cows with reasonable precision. Enhanced with programs like post-partum transition cow monitoring schemes, automated daily milk deviation alerts and the trained eye of a highly skilled herds-person to identify occasional struggling cows, we are assured that problem cow needs can be met reasonably well. While some herds do this extremely well, there is great herd-to-herd variation; I think most would agree, this is easier said than done!

How far can we push our current herd management systems and continue to achieve advances in cow comfort, health and productivity without providing more precise attention to the individual cow? Can we accomplish this without increasing labor inputs?

Table 1 may offer some insight into this labor efficiency question. There is an apparent relative advantage of productivity per FTE for larger dairies. This conforms to a national trend that larger herds, in general but not always, tend to be the higher producing herds and thereby achieve higher labor efficiency via higher milk production. But notice that across all herd sizes, the estimated labor per cow per year (although not as clear) is relatively uniform. In a closer look at a few of our highest producing large Minnesota dairies (30,000-32,000 lb per cow and 1,900,000+ lb milk sold per FTE), I calculated the estimated labor per cow per year at 42 hrs @ 60 cows / FTE.

Table 1. FinBin Dairy Enterprise Analysis for Conventional Minnesota Dairies from 2007-2011

Herd size # cows All herd sizes
1-50 51-100 101-200 201-500 >500
Number of herds 2,367 463 951 525 313 115
Milk/cow/yr 21,898 17,078 19,541 20,597 23,049 24,540
Lb. milk sold/FTE/yr 1,443,803 993,237 1,293,844 1,511,855 1,440,984 1,617,84
Est. labor hrs/cow/yr 42.27 47.80 42.11 38.00 44.68 42.24
FTE = full time labor equivalent.

Here is where precision dairy fits. Precision dairy management is automation using sensor-based management tools that define animal behavior, production and health needs with equipment that automatically delivers individual cow management information to the herd manager allowing timelier cow management decisions. Precision dairy technology could ratchet up labor efficiency by making possible more precise dairy management without adding more labor. This is particularly true for smaller size dairies that for whatever reason (land base, personal preference) do not want to get larger but do need to remain competitive.

Automated milking systems (robots) offer a good example of the effect of precision dairy technology on reducing labor inputs per cow while increasing milk production per FTE (see Table 2). That is because robotic milking technology injects a huge dose of automation (automated milking, concentrate feeding, real time monitoring of body weight, milk production, components, activity, etc.) that intensifies the precision with which individual cow needs are measured and met on a daily basis. However, the automated milking system is NOT the only example of precision dairy technology. There are many other emerging precision dairy tools and methods to achieve more precise dairy management. I believe we are beginning an exciting new era in dairy herd management that deserves all of our attention.

Table 2. FinBin Dairy Enterprise Analysis for Minnesota Conventional and Robotic Dairies for 2007-2011.

Average Lowest Highest
Lb milk sold/FTE Conventional* 1,443,803 1,343,062 1,579,174
Est. labor hrs/cow Conventional* 42.27 40.33 42.92
Lb milk sold/FTE Robotic dairies** 1,782,538 1,520,234 2,244,982
Est. labor hrs/cow Robotic dairies* 32.14 27.88 39.74
*Conventional dairies n =1105
**Robotic dairies n = 23

Come and see for yourself at the first U.S. Precision Dairy Conference and Expo in Rochester, MN, June 25-27, 2013, hosted by the University of Minnesota. Mark your calendars now and check out the Precision Dairy website at

December 2012

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