“I’ve got to get my cows to make more milk.” “I want to make as much milk as I can and as cheaply as I can.” “My grain bill’s too high and the milk check’s too low.” Most likely every dairy nutritional consultant has heard those words or words to that effect on just about every dairy farm he or she has been on. Or how about:
“Some of my fresh cows are coming down with milk fever and they aren’t cleaning.”
“The last four fresh cows had DAs.”
“My calves all have the scours.”
“My milk components are too low.”
There are so many management details that must be addressed on the dairy – cow health, calf health, replacements, feed costs, feeding efficiencies, equipment repair, milk production, milk quality, sanitation, nutrient management, human resource and labor management – and the list goes on.
And any one of these items, if not managed correctly or efficiently, could cost the dairy farm a lot of money. Dairy farmers find they must be multitalented and multitaskers in a lot of different disciplines.
They have to be a milker, doctor, mechanic, welder, plumber, electrician, farmer, labor negotiator, politician, businessman, environmentalist – and the list goes on.
While some dairy farmers can manage all aspects of their operation successfully by themselves or with the help of a few family members, most find they simply can’t wear all the hats and be good at everything.
As dairy farms become larger and more complex, the best dairy farmers will assemble a management team that will enable the captains to lead, guide and steer their big ships through the uncertain waters of the modern dairy industry.
While much has been written, discussed and debated about how to properly manage a modern commercial dairy farm with some level of standardization, seldom do we find any two dairy farms being managed the same.
Even though financial principles such as capitalization and leveraging of debt are well understood, even though maximizing feeding and labor efficiencies are continually emphasized in good times and in bad, some dairy farms make money year after year and others lose money and finally go out of business.
Even though the basics of dairy farming are well known – milk the cows, feed the cows and breed the cows – it’s ironic how many farms attain only a marginal level of success in these critical areas.
Sooner or later dairy farmers must have that “a-ha moment” and recognize there are areas of management at which they are not experts and they must concede some of that control and decision-making to others who are better qualified. Even if they have unsurpassed expertise in one or more areas of dairy management, they should also be willing to have a “second set of eyes” take a look at things from time to time.
There are a number of different areas management specialists and consultants can assist dairy farmers with, including finances, farm designs, labor relations, crop production and feed contracting. Nearly every dairy farm has used professional services such as veterinarians and accounting services to help with management decisions.
Each dairy has its own unique set of challenges and, as with any client/consultant relationship, the relationship must, first and foremost, be built on trust. The dairy farmer must trust that the consultant has the farmer’s best interests at heart and the consultant must trust that the dairy farmer will be cooperative and willing to listen to advice and incorporate and implement ideas and suggestions.
Ultimately, both dairy farmers and consultants have much to offer from experience, each having the potential to educate the other. They must listen to each other as they work together and solve issues.
With feed costs being the single largest expense on dairy farms and nutrition playing such a critical role in milk production and overall profitability, dairy farmers probably rely on feed consultants and feed company professionals as much as anyone to guide them through the increasingly complicated maze of feed costs and feeding efficiencies.
Nutritionists bring to the table their knowledge in the science of ruminant nutrition, as well as their experience of crafting feeding programs that will get the dairy farmer the most bang for the buck.
Keeping a dairy farm on track with optimal milk production and reproduction is certainly the number one management priority of any dairy farm. Critical concepts such as milk revenue per cow and income over feed cost must be a primary focus when formulating diets.
Working with herd managers and feeders and evaluating mixing and feeding procedures will uncover problems in the feed bunk such as overmixing or sorting. Regular analysis of herd records will identify trends in milk production and reproduction before they get out of hand.
Evaluating labor efficiencies, milking parlor through-put, investments in feeding equipment, cow comfort, overcrowding and water quality are some of the areas that can often be overlooked on farms. No two dairies are ever built the same or sized the same.
Regional differences influence forage availability and costs. Varying climates throughout the country are a deciding factor of milking facility and housing designs. Competent consultants will proactively address each of these and more specific to a particular dairy farm.
A successful dairy farm today must take a holistic approach to management, realizing many factors are intertwined. Calf-raising management, if poor for a season with high mortality, will have an effect on replacements coming into the herd two years down the road.
Planning for expansion must take into consideration the financial return on investment and debt leveraging. As a dairy farm gets larger, building a commodity shed may become a cost-effective investment to save on feed costs. Improved transition cow management has been shown to improve milk production by 2,000 pounds of milk in a lactation.
As the dairy industry struggles through these times of increased volatility, whether the dairy is big or small, the need for expert management becomes increasingly more critical. Any dairy can quickly get into trouble when mistakes are made in the feed program or reproduction falls behind.
Large farms that have the potential to benefit from economies of scale can find themselves reeling under too much debt when milk prices decline. Smaller dairies engaged in growing their own forages can find themselves stuck with a poor corn crop that seriously impacts milk production and revenues for an entire year.
Dairy farmers tend to be an independent lot inclined to solve problems on their own and sometimes are reluctant to call for help when there is a problem. Successful dairy farming today requires a team effort and dairy farmers and their managers must be looking ahead a year or more into the future if they expect to keep their balance sheets clean and their income statements out of the red. PD
- Central Connecticut Co-operative Farms Association
- Email John Hibma