2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Dana Gochenour Virginia Correspondent
DAYTON, Va. — Cold weather is the closest thing to a break that many farmers get, and many take that opportunity to increase their knowledge and mingle with others in their industry.
Twenty dairy producers gathered Jan. 21 in Dayton to discuss feed costs, transition cow management and other factors that affect a dairy’s profitability.
The meeting was sponsored primarily by Renaissance Nutrition, but featured speakers that are traveling the state as part of a larger, more in-depth series of forums organized by Virginia Cooperative Extension.
With the steep increase in feed costs over the last several years, dairy producers have struggled to keep up and find cheaper alternatives.
“Very few Virginia farms report feed costs to DHIA, which is an indication to me that you have no idea how much it is,” said Mike Brouk, a general nutritionist from Kansas State University.
While milk price is out of the producer’s hands, the other two major factors impacting profitability — milk production per cow and total feed cost — can be improved through attention to detail.
“These hard times that we are going through, they will make us better managers,” Brouk said.
“If you raise your own forage and grain you have more control over feed cost,” Brouk added. Those producers who rely on purchased commodities will have a tougher time.
“Those cheap byproducts are probably gone,” said Brouk, acknowledging that the more offbeat things some people feed their cows, like candy and potato chips, are not widely available.
One huge detriment to total feed cost that many producers overlook is feed shrink. Brouk said he believes producers should approach feed shrink control as a potential profit opportunity and think seriously about ways to improve commodity storage and feed mixing.
“If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it,” Brouk said, stressing the need to include feed shrink in feed cost calculations. “The cost of production plus shrink is a good way to report feed costs.”
Brouk’s presentation also identified and discussed solutions for barriers to milk production.
“In the dairy industry we work in a system that is a continuum,” Brouk said. “Dry matter intake is important not only for this lactation, but getting (the cow) ready for the next lactation as well.”
According to Brouk, every pound of dry matter a cow consumes is worth about three pounds of milk, a number that can be immediately felt in the farmer’s wallet.
Brouk also discussed the impact of cow comfort and freestall design on milk production. Research has shown that high-producing cows tend to spend more time resting than the average cow in the herd because lying down significantly increases blood flow to the udder.
“If a cow stands in a stall too long (before laying down) she’s trying to figure out how to use the stall that you have provided. There’s something wrong with the stall,” Brouk said.
The event’s other speaker, David McClary of Elanco Animal Health, talked about changing the way that producers think about “transition cows,” those animals that are being dried off and then calving and returning to lactation.
Foremost, he encouraged participants to expand the traditional timeline and think of the transition period as a 90-day window, from 60 days before calving to 30 days in milk.
Dry cows are often seen as the least productive animals on the farm, and as such may be subjected to less than optimal conditions, but McClary cautioned against giving them anything less than the best treatment. The many physical, metabolic and hormonal changes that take place in the cow during the transition period leave her more vulnerable to a long list of metabolic and infectious diseases, he said.
“Only 50 percent of cows in the U.S. complete the transition period without a problem,” McClary said.
McClary went on to explain that any environmental problem a transition cow faces, such as heat, mud, overcrowding or insufficient feed, creates a stress on the animal. Stressors accumulate and increase a cow’s risk for developing health problems, such as ketosis or mastitis.
“Stress can negate good nutrition or aggravate poor nutrition,” he said.
For far-off dry cows, McClary warned against dry periods over 70 days and discouraged high-energy rations.
“You don’t want excessive weight loss or gain (in far-dry cows),” McClary said. “It’s no place for high-energy feeds like corn silage.”
Close-up and fresh cows are the most sensitive to stresses, and McClary cautioned against overcrowding and mixing heifers with older cows in those groups.
“You don’t want to move (cows between) pens less than 10 days before calving,” he said, noting that the animals need time to adjust so that the stress of moving is not compounded by the stresses already associated with calving and the beginning of lactation.
McClary and Brouk also initiated a lively discussion with the producers in attendance about methods for cooling dairy cattle. While heat abatement is hardly a concern this time of year, there is no disputing the fact that heat stress can have a serious negative impact on milk production and overall cow health.
Both speakers argued in favor of cooling systems that utilize both water and fans, with plenty of research to support their claim. While some of the farmers were skeptical, Brouk explained that fans alone do little good because cows do not have enough sweat glands on the surface of their bodies to create the kind of evaporative cooling that the human body employs.
“Ninety-five-degree air moving across a cow with a temperature between 102 and 104 degrees isn’t enough of a gradient to create much cooling,” Brouk said.
McClary added that water alone is also insufficient because it can act as a blanket, actually holding heat in. The ideal combination is water plus air flow, allowing for a more significant exchange of heat through evaporation, they said.