Today’s dairy producers have access to a lot of new and innovative technology. These technologies are positioned to improve health, cow comfort, reproduction, milk yield, milk components and more. If a producer adopted every new technology that was available, all herds would be over 100 pounds of milk, cull rates would be less than 20 percent, all cows would conceive, heifers would not cost more than $1,800 and all dairy producers would be extremely profitable. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Several factors impact dairy producers’ profitability. The impact of each factor is directly dependent on each individual farm. This is why all technologies tried are not successful. Each farm and farm manager is different with different goals, opportunities and needs. Applying the same technology to every farm is a mistake; it should be based on the producer’s goals, objectives, needs and capabilities.

Another thing that impacts the success of technology implementation is the fact that the average dairy producer is reactive and not proactive. If the operation is going well (production, health, breeding, etc), the tendency is to not make any changes. The problem with this approach is most problems that arise on a farm are caused or initiated two to four months before we observe the problem. For instance, a producer has a poor pregnancy check of two pregnant out of 15 checked. The producer’s concern is today, but in all reality the problem started 40 to 60 days before that. Another example observed is lameness. Lameness issues are initiated two to four months prior to visible signs.

Producers should be more proactive in trying to reduce or prevent these incidences before they occur. Using tools, such as records, helps them make sound, fact-based decisions necessary to prevent these problems from occurring. In addition, field service people must be helping producers use these proven tools and make suggestions to adopt technology based on that farm’s problems and goals.

How do farm service providers address what things work and don’t work on today’s dairy farms? The answer quite honestly is, “It depends.” As I stated earlier, no two farms are the same. Each farm is different and should be evaluated as an individual and recommendations should be based on observations and producer goals. This process improves the success of the technology being implemented. For example, sand is an excellent bedding source, but if not managed correctly it can cause major problems.


Transition cows
This is the period three weeks pre- and post-calving. A lot of research has been done in this area, but we still have not eliminated the metabolic disorders commonly associated with calving and the high incidence of culling. Based on Minnesota DHIA data from October 1996 to October 2001, the period when more cows leave the herd is the first 60 days post-calving, with the first 20 days being the highest.

A lot of factors could contribute to the high incidence of culling during this period, but the main cause is probably how the transition period is managed. Several feeding and management systems have been researched and recommended over the years in an attempt to lower metabolic problems and reduce the number of cows leaving the herd. They have all worked and they have all failed.

Typically, they fail because of overcrowding. In a bedded pack facility, 140 square feet per cow is recommended and at least one stall per animal in a stall facility, preferably 80 percent capacity. But nine out of 10 times this is not the case, and cows have 100 square feet, or less than a stall per animal. Weiland stated cows love consistency, and this comment is more true here than any other time.

I prefer a “one-group” dry cow program with an average days dry from 50 to 55 days, being fed restricted energy. This system minimizes the number of social and diet changes, provides enough time for proper mammary involution, rumen papillae to reconstruct (if necessary) and appears to minimize the pre-calving decline in dry matter intake (DMI).

Not only is the decline in DMI just prior to calving less but also the DMI post-calving is higher. Both appear to be beneficial in lowering post-calving metabolic disorders, specifically fatty liver and ketosis. Another interesting point is milk persistency is greater with this dry cow system. To achieve low-energy diets, straw is typically fed.

Another management practice which is extremely beneficial is a post-fresh group for 14 to 21 days post-calving. Placing fresh cows into an overcrowded high group is a plan for disaster. Fresh cows are not as aggressive at the feedbunk, require a different plane of nutrition and require more attention. Again, overcrowding is critical, and providing a diet that promotes or supports DMI is the key.

Herd replacements
This is the future for any dairy producer, but it is so often an area of neglect. Calves do not receive adequate amounts of colostrum nor soon enough after birth to support immunity. They are not provided enough nutrients to support growth rates of 1.5 to 2 pounds per day. In addition, weaned heifers are often fed fermented feeds via a total mixed ration (TMR) and housed in overcrowded facilities, on concrete without any bedding.

Too may times I see producers that do an excellent job with calves, but they ruin it with poor heifer facilities and poor management. The end result is heifers that do not have the proper structural growth, are overconditioned and calve over 24 months of age.

Calves should receive a minimum of 2 quarts of colostrum immediately after birth followed by 2 more quarts at six and 12 hours later. Feed saleable milk, pasteurized milk (do not feed waste milk) or milk replacer to support 1.5 to 2 pounds of average daily gain (ADG). Offer free-choice water and dry starter beginning on day three after birth, but no hay.

At weaning, animals should be offered free-choice water, starter or grower, dry hay and housed in transition pens of four to six calves for three to four weeks. Do not overcrowd group pens and limit the number to 20 to 40 animals per pens. Feed dry hay and grain until at least 6 months old. Regardless of the forage base (corn silage or hay silages), heifers can become overconditioned, so it is recommended you feed straw or a lower quality hay mixed into the TMR to lower the energy density. Harvesting a dry cow and heifer hay silage or hay of medium maturity is ideal.

Cow comfort
I am rolling a lot of items into this category from the time in the holding area or parlor to stall design. The amount of time a cow spends eating, drinking, milking and lying down is critical to her ability to milk and reproduce in a healthy manner.

Typically, cow numbers grow faster than the number of units in the parlor, so the amount of time in holding areas increases as farms grow. Any time over one hour is excessive and can negatively impact milk production and reproduction. In addition, it can be a main contributor to lameness. Splitting milking groups in half is one method used to lower holding area time. Splitting an overcrowded group has often resulted in 2 to 3 more pounds of milk.

A lot of emphasis is placed on installing the proper stall divider and neck rail with specific stall dimensions. Having enough lunge space and being free of obstacles are also important. However, the most critical factor is the surface material and what the stalls are bedded with. Are your cows comfortable when they lie down, and do they have adequate footing when trying to stand up? In others words, do the stalls contain enough bedding? If greater than 12 percent of the cows are standing in the stall or are half-in, half-out, you have a stall comfort issue and more often than not it is related to a lack of bedding.

Sand is the bedding material of choice in regards to being inorganic (reduces incidence of mastitis) and providing cow comfort. It is comfortable and lying in sand provides excellent footing when trying to stand. It is, however, difficult on manure-handling equipment. And, if not managed correctly, it can be a nightmare.

One farm I visited was using sand, but it had a high somatic cell count (greater than 400,000) and a lot of damaged or broken cows. He had heard all about the positive things with sand bedding, but he failed to hear the part about filling the stalls full with sand on a weekly basis. This producer was bedding once per month and never filled the stalls. The situation was definitely worse than if he had installed mattresses or used sawdust on top of cement.

Rubber belting or matting has been installed in a lot of facilities. The first rubber was installed in the feed alleys to encourage cows to eat more. However, the greatest benefit to installing rubber is in the holding area, parallel parlors, walkways and anywhere a cow must make a turn, such as return alleys and backing out of stalls. The benefit is less wear on the hooves, especially rear feet.

Based on DHIA records, the average pregnancy rate for the United States and Canada is 14 to 16 percent. To maintain herd numbers, the pregnancy rate needs to be over 20 percent, and in order to have significant internal herd growth, it should be 25 percent or greater. To overcome our less-than-ideal breeding programs, it is being recommend to breed cows earlier and earlier and use programmed breeding to get semen into more cows.

A lot of research has been conducted on programmed breeding and producers have heard how valuable a tool programmed breeding is. A concern with programmed breeding is the pregnancy rate. In some herds, pregnancy rates have not improved because of poor and improper implementation of the program in use.

Herds that focus on heat detection and make it a priority have been able to raise pregnancy rates above 20 percent. Cows are observed for heat three times per day, with the first observation coming prior to milking and when groups are being moved to the parlor. These herds are recording heat detection rates around 70 percent and with 30 to 35 percent conception rates. All cows that fail to show heat by 70 days are given a shot of prostaglandin and bred, only if estrus is observed. Old tools still work when it is a priority.

Bunker and pile silo management
As herds have gotten larger and the need to harvest forages faster has increased, more and more bunker silos and pile silos are being used. These structures can store many tons of feed more economically than traditional uprights. They can be filled faster and have faster unloading rates than uprights. Another advantage can be more consistent feed. Since each field is a layer there is less variation day to day. However, the feed quality can and is often compromised when they are not managed well.

The amount of shrink or waste recorded for bunker silos and pile silos range from 12 to 25 percent and in some cases closer to 40 percent. The loss is a result of poor packing, not covering the silo, harvesting forages too wet or too dry, a storage facility too large for the herd size, poor bunk face management, too much surface exposed to the air and overfilling the structure.

Ideally, forages should be harvested at 30 to 35 percent DM to provide the best quality forage. This allows for proper packing to ensure good density. A minimum of 6 inches should be removed from the face per day to reduce dry matter loss. Building silos that are narrower allow for greater freedom in feed inventory use. Because bunkers are often oversized (to reduce cost), the pile is split to reduce the amount of working face being exposed. Splitting the bunker or pile increases the overall surface area exposed to air resulting in more spoilage and waste.

All bunkers and piles should be covered the day harvesting is completed to reduce DM loss and spoilage. In addition, covering stops rain or snow from seeping into the silage. Recently, some producers are also lining the bunker walls with plastic to reduce the amount of surface area exposed to air by cracks and to prevent water damage along the walls as well.

Everything that has been tried has worked and failed at least once depending on the farm and its management. On the average, some management practices are more successful than others, but as the old saying goes “there are exceptions for every rule.” I encourage all producers to be more proactive and think about how any decisions made today may influence your operation down the road. Implement new technology based on the information available but more importantly on how it fits into your goals and objectives. PD

References omitted but are available upon request.

—Excerpts from 2006 Kentucky Dairy Conference Proceedings

Doug Waterman
Director of Technology Transfer
at Maple Leaf Foods

To contact Doug,
e-mail him at