Visalia, California was the setting for the 2010 North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge. Thirty schools attended this year’s competition and were welcomed with nice, warm California weather. Blue skies and low 70s made it easy to see why dairymen have traditionally loved dairying in California.

The Dairy Challenge is focused on making dairies and the dairy industry better, so with that in mind, 120 bright minds tackled the task of combing through data and visually reviewing the dairy to find opportunities for improvement. As is usually the case, the dairies the students visited were beautiful and well managed, making the task that much more difficult.

Dairy Challenge winners

“The students are learning how to go out to a dairy and find the things that are the most important and that can make the most difference right away,” says Christie Stanley, southwest dairy calf and heifer specialist with Land O’Lakes Purina Feeds and judge for dairy 4. “I think sometimes you look at a textbook and look at the things that are wrong, but are those things really impacting the dairy? I think it’s important to go out and observe the things that are most critical and would be the easiest to fix, fastest to fix and that can make the biggest difference to the dairyman. Find a real return on investment.”

One of the host dairies, Dairy 4, milks over 2,000 head three times a day in two double-20 herringbone parlors. They have worked hard to get excellent genetics into their herd and actively flush the heifers and cows with the best genes to continue their goal of “milking great cows.”

“The dairyman was really positive about what he does and he really loves working with the cows,” says Stanley, who has been a judge at regional events and is judging her first national contest. “He really looks at cow comfort and is very passionate about his animals and his whole program.”


Some of the students also noticed the dairyman’s optimism rubbed off on the workers.

“When the herdsman spoke to us, he was very optimistic,” said Elizabeth Smith from Penn State University, which was assigned to Dairy 4. “He was very passionate and was excited about the improvements they have made. The other employees we observed, they all seemed to have a smile on their face, and I don’t think it was just because we were there. A number of their employees had been there for a number of years, too. Their feeder has been there for 25 years.”

The Michigan State team also noticed the dairy had exceptional embryo transfer fertility, around 70 percent, which was much higher than their normal conception rate. Their team found Dairy 4’s milk production was high and definitely a strength. They also saw that the heifers were freshening and transitioning well.

“You’re looking for your first- lactation cows to peak at about 80 percent of what your mature cows were peaking at, and they were at right about 80 percent,” said Gail Carpenter, a member of Michigan State’s team. “The heifers were just really taking off well in the first lactation.”

“That might have been punctuated by the age they were breeding at, which they were calving in at an average of 26 months,” added Rosemary Rice, who is also on Michigan State’s team that visited Dairy 4.

With seasoned industry professionals acting as judges and 32 students adding their perspective, Dairy 4 was given some good suggestions for ways to shore up the operation.

“One of the key areas we think could be improved on is quality control,” says Matt Budine, the lead judge for Dairy 4 and CEO of Progressive Dairy Solutions. “That broke into three key areas: parlor control, nutrition control and cow monitoring.”

Budine says that the parlor had four milkers doing four separate routines, which causes problems for the cows. Budine says the milkers are missing about one turn per hour, which he says means the parlor could milk 456 more cows if the routines were fixed. He estimates this could increase their revenue $1.7 million. He went on to say that intake should be monitored and fertilization should be improved as well.

University of Wisconsin-Madison was also assigned to Dairy 4 and recognized some of the same opportunities. They suggested the dairy raise the bar on conception through better protocol.

“Their conception rate was pretty low in comparison to the average, so we suggested changing their reproduction protocol; synchronizing their cows more tightly,” said Robb Bender from the University of Wisconsin-Madison team. “That would improve their overall reproduction and that has a lot of other effects like dry period, days in milk, everything.”

Michigan State suggested that shoring up milking procedure would help this dairy improve already impressive milk production with better milk.

“They had above a 300,000 SCC. And the county average was about 260,000. So there was room for improvement there,” Carpenter says. “They could increase the frequency of bedding, making sure it’s raked out. Also their parlor routine, their consistency was lacking. They followed the same prepping procedure they were supposed to. The problem was that they varied the number of cows in the groups they were milking. Sometimes they would milk a group of five and sometimes they would milk a group of 10. So you were seeing cows that were taking four-and-a-half minutes from the first touch to the actual attachment of the milker.”

All three groups touched on the ration and how it might be tweaked to improve profitability. The Penn State team suggested that by measuring what was really fed and what was eaten and what is necessary, the dairy could save a lot of money on feed.

“Their forage-to-concentrate ratio was 47 to 53 percent across the herd, even in low groups,” says Peter Yoder from the Penn State team. “The transition diet had excessive crude protein and there were large changes in nutrient values. We thought overall, with nutrition, they needed to start controlling their costs by keeping active records: track dry matter intake, track over-feed costs, and track shrink. Then go forward from there and evaluate moving to a higher forage diet, which will lower cost of production and hopefully you’ll have healthier cows.” PD