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Large dairies in the Upper Midwest

Animal welfare, management and economics

Marcia Endres

Recent trends in dairy farm structure in the United States include a decreasing number of operations while farm size has increased, especially the share of milk production from very large farms (greater than 2,500 cows). The Upper Midwest has shown recent growth in the share of milk production coming from larger farms. From 2000 to 2012, the percent of state milk production coming from farms with more than 500 head increased nearly threefold in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Wisconsin - from 8.5 to 32.6% in Minnesota, 5.0 to 44.1% in Iowa, 26.0 to 75.2% in South Dakota, and 9.0 to 38.1% in Wisconsin (USDA, 2014). Very large operations (more than 2,500 cows) have also begun to make an impact on milk production in the Upper Midwest. In 2012, these operations accounted for just 0.2% of the total number of operations in these states, but were responsible for over 11% of total milk production that occurred in the four-state region (USDA, 2014). Cost advantages of larger farms appear to be driving the consolidation within the dairy industry.

These large dairy operations are sometimes referred to as factory or mega farms by activists instilling an image of a place that is not good for cows. Are cows living in larger dairies at risk for more disease and poor welfare? Are these dairies economically different from smaller dairies? Graduate student Tyler Evink and I conducted a cross-sectional study with 15 dairies with more than 2,500 cows in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Iowa that was completed last year. At the time of our study, these herds represented 33% of the operations of this size in the four-state region. We wanted to learn about their housing and management practices, evaluate animal welfare and get an idea about their economic profile. So, in a nutshell, what did we learn?

Housing and herd performance characteristics

Seven of the operations housed cows in freestalls with deep bedded sand, seven used deep bedded recycled manure solids (RMS), and one farm used 2 to 3-inch RMS layer on top of mattresses. Within farms that utilized sand, three had a mechanical separation system while the remaining four farms had sand settling lanes. Methane digesters were operated by six of the eight farms that housed cows on RMS and two of the farms that housed cows on sand. Eight of the farms housed the majority of cows in mechanically ventilated (i.e. cross ventilated or tunnel ventilated) freestall barns, whereas seven farms housed cows in naturally ventilated freestall barns.

The average herd size for the farms in our study was 4,972 cows (ranged from 2,606 to 13,266). In terms of breed composition, 12 of the operations had Holstein, 2 had Jersey, and 1 had predominantly Holstein and Jersey crosses. The daily milk production per cow averaged 70.3 pounds (61.1 to 80.8) with 3.85% fat and 3.15% protein. Bulk tank somatic cell count averaged 190,000 (133,000 to 245,000) and 21-day pregnancy rate averaged 21.7%.

Animal welfare

We collected various process- and outcome-based measurements, but I will focus on lameness, hock lesions and hygiene, which are three key animal based measures used to evaluate animal welfare. These farms can have specialized labor on the farm, including in-house hoof trimmers, veterinarians and others, which is hard to do with smaller herd sizes. All 15 farms in the study utilized employee training and retraining protocols, and every farm also offered some form of 3rd party training to their employees. We found low prevalence of lameness - 16.7% overall, 5.1% severe (cows scoring 4 or greater), which is less than some previous studies. Farms with a trained on-farm hoof trimmer had lower lameness prevalence than those farms that hired an outside hoof trimmer. It is likely that the lower prevalence of lameness on farms with an on-site hoof trimmer could be due in part to the fact that lame cows can be treated right away after they are observed. Hock lesion prevalence was 22.8% and severe hock lesion prevalence was only 2.3%. Hygiene score averaged 2.5 (ranged from 2.0 to 2.9), which is also good compared to previous research. In conclusion, these results indicate that cow welfare is not compromised in large dairy operations in the Upper Midwest.

Some economic observations

Cost of production for the year of the study averaged $17.88 per hundredweight (cwt) of milk produced whereas milk price averaged $19.02 per cwt. By category, feed costs were the highest at $9.47 per cwt, followed by labor at $1.90 per cwt, interest and depreciation at $1.76 per cwt, and replacement costs at $1.70 per cwt. These costs accounted for 83% of the total costs. Feed was the highest category as it is in dairy farms across the country accounting for 53% of total costs. Milk sold per employee was 2,471,242 pounds (amazing!) and the number of cows per employee was 105.1. The farms on the top 50% for profitability averaged 122 cows per employee whereas the bottom 50% averaged 92.

In conclusion, these farms were profitable and provided an environment and management that resulted in good animal welfare.


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