During his years as a dairy veterinarian, Michael Lormore went on his share of late-night emergency calls, dealing with everything from putting back a prolapse to treating a uterine torsion.
During that time, Lormore realized that even though he was saving cows, he wasn’t making money for producers. He was just helping them reduce their losses.
Today, as the director of cattle technical services at Zoetis, Lormore knows what it takes for a dairy producer to be profitable, and he offered some ideas Tuesday during a virtual session of the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit.
Lormore led a 2014 study identifying the drivers of financial success for a dairy, using data from 110 farms between 2007 to 2018. The farms were in the Dakotas, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.
The average herd size was 1,165 cows, but Lormore’s findings can benefit a dairy of any size and in any location.
One factor stood out as affecting virtually every facet of profitability.
“The bulk tank somatic cell count, to me, is the most important variable out there,” Lormore said.
Cell counts connect to milk production, cow turnover and longevity, and pregnancy rates, all of which affect net farm income.
It’s not good enough, Lormore said, to complacently set a minimum cell count goal. Farmers need to constantly strive to lower their numbers.
“For a long time as an industry we thought 200,000 was good enough,” he said. “I’m not sure why we think it’s OK to have the average cow have an infection.”
In the study, the top farms had annual average cell counts of 125,000, while the worst had counts of 274,000. The top herds made 87.5 pounds of milk per day, while those at the bottom saw production of 78.5 pounds.
When that 9-pound difference is factored in for every cow, every day and each year, the financial loss is significant.
“The revenue opportunity should be obvious,” Lormore said. “For every 100,000 increase in bulk tank somatic cell counts, it is a 5.7-pound decrease in milk production per cow per day. There’s a huge opportunity to continue to improve the quality of the milk we produce.”
There are lessons here for reproductive rates too. It’s a myth, Lormore said, that high-producing cows are hard to breed.
“Herds that give a lot of milk get cows bred. They keep the cell counts down, keep the uterus clean, and the cows breed back faster,” he said. “You see higher pregnancy rates in high-producing herds.”
When open days are reduced, death rates also tend to be low. Steep cell counts correlate with high death rates and other problems.
“When cell counts go up, cows turn over in herds faster, which means we’re bringing in more young cows, and that decreases production,” Lormore said. “A first-lactation animal produces 15% less milk. Longevity is very important.”
Farmers should strive to milk as many third-, fourth- and fifth-lactation cows as possible, and that can be achieved with high pregnancy rates that result from low cell counts.
So what drives somatic cell counts on a farm?
Lormore said it comes down to animal husbandry and herd health.
Producers should strive to avoid what Lormore called the “fire engine” approach to herd health. That’s when a farm racks up high health treatment costs that eat into net farm income.
Also not desirable — intentionally keeping health care costs low while maintaining a low net farm income. It’s hard to stay in business using that strategy, Lormore said.
There are operations with relatively low animal health expenses and high net income, but these farms not only spend money on animal husbandry, but they also invest in their employees and facilities. In turn, Lormore said, cows have minimal stress and able to perform.
A fourth type approach to herd health involves high health care expenses that generate a high net income. Basically, these operations are spending money on disease prevention, and the dividends are realized in stronger milk production.
In the end, anything that can be done to improve herd health and lower cell counts will drive up production and profitability.
“We can impact milk production in a lot of different ways, and bulk tank somatic cell counts are an extremely important indicator of success,” Lormore said. “And with cell counts, herd health and animal husbandry matter.”