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Dairy Specialist: Before Getting Bigger, Get Back to Basics

3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Dairy herds should get better before they get bigger.

That’s one of the key points farmers learned at a winter dairy management workshop, “Managing Your Dairy for Resiliency,” hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension on Feb. 27.

Adding cows is the best way to increase profitability because each one generates additional cash, but only if they’re profitable to begin with.

“We want to get every stall filled and get as much production as we can,” Extension dairy specialist David R. Balbian said. “We can’t afford to be messing around with cows that aren’t productive. We need to get an animal in there that’s producing.

“The trend in New York and the rest of the country has been fewer farms and bigger farms,” he added. “That’s how you get more cash flow and have more money available for labor and management.”

For every 100 cows, an extra five pounds of milk per animal can generate an additional $20,000. But getting there can be complicated and involve a lot of different factors.

Genetics, feed-forage quality, cow comfort and a good replacement program are things all farms can work on to increase milk quality before undertaking an expansion.

“That’s the thing to do first,” said David Wood, owner of the 1,000-cow Eildon Tweed Farm in Charlton. “Then get bigger. You’ve got to get cows to produce well for you first, so you’ll have a base to be profitable from when you do expand.”

Expanding an unprofitable business will only lead to greater losses.

Kings Ransom Farm in Northumberland has 850 milk cows.

“Quality has always been foremost in our minds,” co-owner Edgar King said. “Most of our expansion has been based on trying to improve our efficiency. Some of today’s technology is not easily affordable to smaller farmers.”

By getting bigger and improving cash flow, the Kings have been able to buy more sophisticated planting and harvesting equipment. This allows them to maximize a crop’s nutritional value, an important component of quality milk production.

Hay is a good example.

“You want to watch that crop grow,” King said. “The minute it reaches peak nutritional value, you pounce on it with all the nutrients we can grow, still in it.”

However, large farms aren’t for everybody.

“Do you want to be an owner-manager or do you really like working with cows?” Balbian said. “If that’s your thing, a big farm probably isn’t where you want to be.”

But there’s always room for improvement, even at smaller operations. For example, Balbian said he’s seen barns with 80 stalls where 20 might be used for young stock.

“A cow is your best income-producing asset,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a new tractor or barn cleaner. You want to make the most of the resources you have. Every one of those stalls should be producing milk. That’s how you’re going to maximize what you can do from a business standpoint.”

Before considering an expansion, farms should collect meaningful numbers to know where they’re starting from, set production goals and stick to them.

Quite often, this means getting back to basics and reviewing things such as feeding and herd replacement practices. Monitoring young stock is extremely important.

“We need to be sure they’re growing well so they can perform for us,” Balbian said.

Also, with today’s high feed prices, it’s tempting to cut corners.

This might look good in the short run, but if it means sacrificing milk’s protein content, which affects price, the end result won’t be a good one.

“Don’t shortchange your cows,” Balbian said. “You’ll only take a bad situation and make it worse. We’ve really got to be cautious about feed expense regardless of whether the price is up or down.

“Don’t cheat the cows nutritionally,” he said. “They don’t care what things cost. They’re going to perform based on how you feed them.”

He also advised farms to avoid herd expansions if they’re in the process of switching from a tie-stall to a free stall-parlor system. Typically, farms make this change when they get up to about 100 cows, he said.

Make the transition first, then grow the herd, he Balbian said.

“Whatever kind of system you have, cows will conform to that system,” he said.


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4/18/2014 | Last Updated: 3:46 PM