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What are some characteristics of high-producing dairy herds in Minnesota?

Marcia Endres

We recently conducted a study to learn about housing and current management practices in dairy herds in Minnesota. My graduate student, Lee Kloeckner, visited 82 randomly selected freestall herds to collect on-farm observations and also summarized herd data from on-farm herd management software (DairyComp or PC-Dart) or DHIA and daily bulk tank records for one year. Herd sizes ranged from approximately 150 to 2100 cows.

For this article, I will be reporting on our comparative analysis between the top 25th percentile herds for daily energy-corrected milk (ECM) production per cow and the remaining 75th percentile herds. As my colleague Kota Minegishi suggested during Lee’s final MSc defense, this type of analysis provides information that producers can use for benchmarking. It is important to mention that profitability is what will keep herds in business, not high milk production per se. But achieving high milk production per cow, as long as input costs are not too high, is one way to improve profitability.

Approximately 20 herds were in the top 25th percentile and their average daily ECM per cow was 102 pounds compared to 85 pounds for the remaining herds in the dataset. Figure 1 shows the distribution of ECM production per cow. The lowest producing herd in the dataset averaged 65 pounds per cow per day.

bar graph showing the distribution of milk yield per cow

Figure 1. Distribution of daily energy-correct milk production per cow in Minnesota herds

What was significantly different between those top producing herds and the remaining herds? Our analysis showed that herd size was a factor. Top producing herds milked more cows (average size was 834 cows) compared to the remaining herds (average size was 540 cows). In addition, the top herds were more labor efficient and produced more pounds of milk per employee (1,592,959 vs. 1,323,233 pounds per employee). The least labor efficient herd in the dataset produced 652,089 pounds per employee.

In terms of housing characteristics, we found that top herds had more close-up pen crossovers (average for top herds of 2.3 versus 1.4 for other herds) and close-up pen water troughs (2 versus 1.4), 71% of them housed their dry cows in 2-row pens versus 30% for the remaining herds, and the stocking density in terms of cows per 100 stalls was higher (116 versus 109). In addition, 100% of the top herds used deep-bedded stalls for close-up and fresh cows compared to 53 and 62% for the other herds, respectively. Most of the top farms used deep-bedded sand. They also used deep beds for the high producing pen (89% of top herds versus 59% of remaining herds). Dry cow pen stall length was greater for top herds (98.3 inches) than remaining herds (91.4 inches). These housing characteristics have been shown to improve cow comfort.

We also found that estimated average dry matter intake for the entire herd and the high producing pen was greater for the top producing herds than the remaining herds. It averaged 58 and 62 pounds for the top herds compared to 54 and 56 pounds for the remaining herds, respectively. We did not find a statistical difference in estimated feed efficiency per cow. One feed additive that was different between the two herd categories was anionic salts, which were used in 84% of the top herds and 57% of the remaining herds. There has been recent research indicating that although clinical milk fever is not as common as it used to be, we need to pay attention to subclinical hypocalcemia. Most of the top producing herds (85%) hired an employee as primary feeder compared to 57% of the remaining herds. Could this indicate that having a dedicated employee could result in more accurate mixing and delivery of the total mixed ration? All top herds were using a barrier type of silage plastic cover to improve forage quality.

Time out of the pen for milking was 64.3 minutes per milking for the top herds compared to 76.1 minutes per milking for the remaining herds. Research has shown that increased resting time can result in more milk production per cow. It also has been shown that time away from the home pen for milking is a risk factor for lameness. We found that 95% of the top herds were milking cows 3 times per day compared to 58% of the remaining herds. Milking cows 3 times per day compared to 2 times per day has also been shown to increase milk production per cow. Other factors included the use of bST (90% of top herds compared to 52% of the remaining herds were using it) and the use of a footbath (4.2 versus 3.1 times per week on average).

Some of these findings were expected but it is good to be able to show these differences using a randomly selected dataset of dairy farms in Minnesota. I will present the results of this study at the upcoming Four-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference in Dubuque, IA, June 14-15, 2017. Please check the conference page for the entire program. There are some very good topics! Hope to see you there.

May 2017

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