The Fundamentals of Profitable Milk Production

Randy Shaver

Department of Dairy Science, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706 U.S.A.

# Take Home Messages

Consistency of feeding and management practices is extremely important in dairy production. Pay attention to detail and do the little things right to optimize milk production. Sticking to the proven basics of breeding, feeding, and management is the key to profitable milk production.

# Genetics

You can=t feed a profit out of a poor cow. Don=t feed a ration from the popular press for a 13,500 kg herd to a herd with the genetics or management for 9,000 kg of production. It doesn=t work and it isn=t profitable.

Genetics set and advance the boundaries on what performance levels your herd can attain. Don=t stop or turn back the clock on the genetic progress of your herd. An example of the importance of genetic improvement is seen with milk protein percentage where the best way to significantly enhance it is through breeding.

# Nutrition

Cows need to be fed according to their nutrient requirements. You can=t starve a profit out of a good cow. Underfeeding nutrients, especially protein and energy, lowers performance. Conversely, overfeeding nutrients raises feed costs without a performance boost. Both practices reduce profits.

Test the nutrient content of forages routinely and adjust rations accordingly to balance for nutrient requirements of the cows. This helps maintain or increase milk production relative to changes in feed quality and it also keeps feed costs under control.

Feed a total mixed ration (TMR). Some advantages include increased milk production, use of low cost alternative feeds, control of forage:concentrate ratio, lower incidence of metabolic and digestive disorders, and reduced labour inputs for feeding. Don=t over mix the TMR so that it provides enough effective fiber to keep cows chewing.

Group milking cows according to level of milk production and body condition. This reduces the over-feeding of nutrients and therefore feed costs. Minimize production drops when changing groups by moving cows in groups and narrowing the spread in energy density between the rations. Proper grouping to regulate body condition also helps minimize metabolic and digestive disorders at calving. Maintaining a separate group for first lactation heifers to restrict competition at the feed bunk often enhances their performance.

Bunk management is a major determinant of feed intake and therefore milk production. Provide sufficient bunk space and feed access time. Don=t feed to an empty bunk. Allow for some refusal, especially for early lactation cows. Keep fresh feed pushed up to stimulate appetite. Feed the TMR or ensiled feeds frequently enough to prevent heating in the bunk.

Water is your cheapest nutrient and it is the nutrient required in the greatest amount. Low water consumption reduces feed intake which lowers milk production. Provide easy access to unlimited, clean, fresh water.

Use feed additives and new technologies wisely. Position them properly according to your feeding and management practices. Evaluate their research base and economics closely. Try to be cutting edge on new products without going over the edge on untested and often unprofitable products.

Feed good quality forages. Harvest at an early stage of maturity so that fiber levels are relatively low and intake potential and digestibility are high. Chop at the proper moisture content for your type of silo to ensure that a desirable fermentation occurs. Pack well and cover the silo so that dry matter recoveries from the silo are high. Feed enough off the face and keep the face even to minimize surface spoilage. Don=t over chop forages so that they provide enough effective fiber to keep cows chewing.

# Calf and Heifer Rearing

Take good care of your calves. High mortality rates slow genetic progress. This occurs because some of the best genetics may be lost which in turn may reduce voluntary cull rates due to a lower number of available replacements. Also, calves with damaged respiratory or digestive systems due to poor environmental conditions or management will have lower lifetime production.

Calve heifers at the proper age, size and weight. Calving older heifers lowers profits because the non-lactating feeding period is lengthened. Calving small heifers reduces first lactation production. Calving fat heifers increases calving-related metabolic and digestive disorders which increases veterinary treatment costs and lowers first lactation production. This may also result in higher involuntary cull rates for first lactation heifers.

# Reproduction

Keep the calving interval within a reasonable range for the production level of your herd; probably 13 to 14 months for most high-producing herds. Long calving intervals lead to a stale herd with long average days in milk, may lead to fat cows which increases calving related metabolic and digestive disorders, and lowers the number of replacement heifers which may lower the voluntary cull rate or slow the rate of herd expansion. Two key factors in the regulation of calving interval are the voluntary waiting period and putting semen in the cow. The real value of controlled breeding programs, such as ovsynch, is that they allow you to be proactive and get semen into the cow so that there is a chance for conception.

# Dry Cow Feeding and Management

Implement good dry cow and transition cow feeding and management programs. Dairies that have not implemented sound feeding and management programs during the dry and transition periods often experience: low peak milk yields, excessive loss of body condition, poor fertility, metabolic disorders, such as fatty liver and ketosis, digestive disorders, such as ruminal acidosis and displaced abomasum, high veterinary costs, and high involuntary cull rates. These are all road blocks to profitability.

# Body Condition

Cows should freshen with a condition score of 3.5. Over-conditioned cows, those that freshen with a condition score of 4+, undergo greater intake depression around the time of calving and don=t have good appetites during the first few weeks after calving. Because of this, they are more prone to fatty liver, ketosis, DA=s, ruminal acidosis, rapid and excessive loss of body condition, and poor fertility. Thin cows, those that freshen with a condition score of 3 or 3-, simply don=t have enough energy coming from back fat mobilization to support high levels of milk production. There is normally enough energy contributed from back fat mobilization in early lactation to support 500 to 1,000 kg of milk production. Proper conditioning needs to be done mainly before dry off. Cows should not lose body condition during the dry period. The body condition that can be put on during a 45 to 60 day dry period is only about a half point, therefore, cows should have a body condition score of 3.0 to 3.5 at dry off.

# Cow Comfort

Cows should be clean, dry and comfortable. Keeping cows clean and dry helps prevent mastitis and improves milk quality. Cow comfort is a major determinant of feed intake and milk production. Components of good cow comfort include adequate ventilation, proper stall design, sizing and management, bedding selection and management, and good alley and lot preparation and management.

# Milk Components

Produce to your market. Milk component pricing is used in many areas. It is usually based on component yields, not component percentages. So both milk yield and composition responses to feed changes must be monitored. The economic value of fat, protein, and other solids (lactose and ash) are highly variable from month to month and year to year. Feeding programs and strategies must be flexible to attain the most profitable production of milk components.

Milk Quality

Produce high quality milk. High somatic cell count (SCC) is related to lower milk production. Also, in many areas there is a premium paid for producing low SCC milk.

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