"I am going to sound like a broken record, but, if it is a good idea to regroup or feed differently, why aren't you already doing it?" asked Donny Rollin when discussing potential changes to feeding and grouping strategies during tighter margins. "When prices drop, it is time to batten down the hatches and go full steam ahead," the Riverdale, Calif., dairyman went on to say. "I am not saying that you should ever stop looking for that penny to be earned. However, cows are creatures of habit, and it is easier to maintain milk production or increase it if you have prepared years in advance.

"When we really started to hit our stride, reproduction was the first thing to improve, and it took a year before we saw the fruits of our labor," said Rollin, in conjunction with the January 25 Round Table in Hoard's Dairyman. "As the number of live calves grew, it was another two years before we started to realize the milk in the tank. Extra replacements meant we could cull at a higher level because we weren't stressed about empty stall syndrome.

"That is why I say that cutting or reshuffling generally puts a gap in your system that at some point will catch up with you. We run between 50 and 54 percent pregnant in the herd all year long. This means that we do not go through feast and famine' freshening cycles," Rollin pointed out. "Any time that you slug animals through the dry, close-up and fresh groups, the more opportunity you have to overcrowd and stress the most crucial part of the operation."

Rollin Valley Dairy is a general partnership between Donny, his mother and his older brother. All totaled, the dairy has 4,150 animals. Milk cows are housed in 120-cow freestall barns with exercise lots. Manure solids are used for bedding. The herd averages 30,338 M, 3.7 F and 3.0 P. The dairy has two double-21 parallel parlors. Cows are milked 3x and rotate between the parlors in order to achieve this milking frequency.

Rollin noted that the dairy's employees have the most direct impact on their business and margins. "They have a hand in what goes into and comes out of the cows. If we fail to achieve a quality in/quality out mentality from our employees, we will struggle with margins." Their nutritionist, vet, accountant and other industry consultants also contribute to their margin management. Pictured are Gregorio Lopez and Donny Rollin.

The Rollin Valley Farms team also had this to say in response to additional questions focused on "How they ride the margin roller coaster":

How do you ensure that reproductive performance isn't sacrificed?

We have focused on nutrition first and foremost in our business. Quality in means quality out. You cannot shortchange nutrition and expect to get reproductive performance. If you start with a proper dry cow ration and follow with a balanced close-up ration, you have the battle just about won.

Everything we do here affects the future of our cows. Our business has gone from putting up silage to making top-notch forages. It has been a lot of learning and growing on our part to change the habits of old. First, this takes admitting that you can do better and seeking help without feeling like your pride is getting in your way.

Ask the "dumb questions," and look for a second opinion on changes that you are planning to make to your program to ensure success. Take full advantage of tech service and extension veterinarians so that you can cream off the most current dairy trends and research. I know I said this before, but the goal is to make money when times are good and cash flow when times are bad. It is a long-term, not short-term, focus for us.

What steps are taken to ensure you ship high-quality milk?

I have taken the approach that the equipment needs to be in working order when each shift starts work each day. Before, it was hit and miss on our routine maintenance for the milking parlors. We changed companies to one that met our needs of being "routine" about our maintenance.

In addition, I have parlor audits done by an independent contractor quarterly on our dairy. He comes in and gives a more thorough audit of all milking equipment. He spends the day checking on the milking routine, teat end vacuum and vacuum drops, and ends with a synopsis of where our equipment is with no bias toward selling me anything. I hired him many years ago when we were struggling with SCC and mastitis. Steve came in, checked the system out and reported a stray voltage problem. Because of the initial audit, we dropped 200,000 SCC in a couple of days, and that has made me a believer ever since.

How do you ensure that you're taking full advantage of your homegrown feeds?

This is one area I believe our dairy has had monumental growth. Through the years, we always struggled with our forage quality and shrink. We did a poor job of checking dry matters at harvest, no inoculant was used to aid fermentation and the coverage of silage piles was atrocious. I would estimate our shrink at about 20-percent-plus.

Now, we are very detail oriented when it comes to putting up quality forages. Over the last four years, we have worked with three different custom choppers to get on the same page with making quality forages. We have sat down each of the last six seasons and made clear what our expectations are and provided data to back up our requests.

The company we used this past season came out and used a wood chipper to chop up our stalks to ensure a proper starting dry matter. Next, an inoculant was sprayed on at the chopper head. All our silage is in drive-over piles, and we required an extra dozer to properly pack as feedstuffs were added to the pile. Finally, we have a custom crew that comes out and lays an oxygen barrier over the pile and seals it with a tarp. They also apply a solid layer of tire rings on top to keep everything in place and allow for proper fermentation.

We measure dry matter periodically through the field as it is harvested and monitor kernel processing to make sure starch will be available in the end product. These are all things that happen for us in times of good margin or bad as cutting corners never quite seems to make quality happen.

To learn more about the Rollin Valley Farms, turn to pages 46 to 48 in the January 25, 2016, issue to read the Round Table, "How they ride the margin roller coaster."

If you are currently not a subscriber, please order a subscription. If you order today, we can be sure you get to read the January 25 issue.

To comment, email your remarks to intel@hoards.com.

(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2016
February 1, 2016
Subscribe to Hoard's Dairyman Intel by clicking the button below