The author is a partner and large animal veterinarian at Thumb Veterinary Services in Deckerville, Mich.

What a difference a year makes!

Mark Fox, D.V.M.
The year 2022 will go down in the dairy books as a great one. Most of you were able to advance your farm’s mission and goals in a variety of ways, including updated facilities, new or newer equipment, land acquisition, more cows, and so forth.

This year, the bubble burst and the dairy markets fell to the cost of production or less for some. History did repeat itself; highs bring lows, and lows bring highs. The last couple decades have displayed a lot of volatility. You have adapted to riding the roller coaster in both directions.

How can we gain efficiency during a season of low milk price? I will share five thoughts in no order of importance. Many of these areas have been placed in my memory by watching you continue to improve and enjoy our calling in the dairy life, even during seasons of low dairy price.

1. Invest in technology

I did start with a cost investment, but hear me out! Over the last decade, we have seen great improvements in the dairy technology sector. From robotic milking to sensor-controlled ventilation systems, both for naturally and mechanically ventilated barns, the life of the cow is continuing to improve!

Add to this list the availability of precision cow sensors. Several cow monitoring systems have been successfully used in the herds I serve. Those who know me very well recognize my frequent quip “Just listen to your cows.” Now you can visit with your cows on your phone!

The cow will tell you when she is in heat or too hot in the holding pen. The cow will text you if her belly hurts (rumination) or if she is walking too much or too little (lameness). Most cattle caregivers are happy to free up time that used to be spent giving reproductive hormone injections or doing transition cow screening and instead watch the herd in other areas.

We have been successful utilizing breeding synchronization in a big way over the past 20 years. As herd size has continued to grow, the days of intensive heat detection diminished. Today, with precision cow monitors, we can continue to achieve high pregnancy rates in a more cow-friendly manner.

Having an effective program in place to achieve a timely first insemination is our goal. Many farms have been rewarded by utilizing pedometers from voluntary waiting period to a “backstop” days in milk before initiating a timed A.I. As always, the return to estrus is our opportunity to enhance timely re-insemination.

Finally, most of these systems are on a lease or purchase option. I have been impressed with the excitement and adoption, especially by those younger than me. Technology lightens our load and benefits our cows. These investments pay dividends back to the farm in short order.

2. Determine heifer needs

How many replacements are enough? Many farms have made great strides with calf and heifer rearing and their heifer housing is full. Only upon discussion about herd expansion or productive herd life can a true assessment be made.

Suffice it to say, the costs of raising replacements have gone up as well. Many dairy economists estimate the cost of raising heifers to be $2,000 to $2,500.

Is there opportunity to sell early or utilize beef sires on dairy animals to maximize returns? Currently, some of these crossbred calves are bringing a nice price. If expansion is not in the plan, what factors could we be experiencing on the milking cow herd that may be shortening productive herd life? Healthy, mature cows milk well and typically are paid for.

3. Minimize feed shrink

Feed is the number one cost for all life stages on your farm. I witness great variation among farms, from storage losses to refusals.

Perhaps a quick review with the calf crew would be beneficial to assess if waste may be occurring starting here. Is too much starter being offered? Spoilage occurs fast, especially in warm and humid conditions.

What about the purchased transition grain mix? Is it properly protected from rain and wind? At times, metal feeders in heifer barns work well to keep feed fresh with minimal spillage and spoilage losses.

As the silage starts rolling in to storage areas, proper management and attention to detail often brings a huge economic opportunity to reality. Perhaps you can utilize custom harvesting. This is an up front expense, of course, but the rewards may far exceed the cost. Cutting shrink on a big pile of silage by 5% to 7% yields a big return, plus there could be a cow health and production response.

What about refusals in the milking and dry pens? I have a friend who spends time every morning, pushing up and redistributing the total mixed ration (TMR) between pens. Nothing is wasted! Others may have a pen of steers or older heifers to consume the refusals that are in good condition.

Shrink is a concern that we become accustomed to. I have taken feeders to other dairies that excel at attention to bunker management and techniques that improve performance. Watching and listening to these folks inspires others, myself included.

4. Review health protocols

We all are guilty at times of adding more antigens to our vaccination schedule based on isolated cases. Do we ever reconsider our protocols based on recent herd health? Have our calf immunization schedules become a burden for the calf, or for our checkbook?

Are we focused on calving environment and colostrum? At times, I would gladly “steal” a little from calf costs (vaccines, antibiotics, and such) to purchase more dry bedding and fresh air! Prevention always rules.

Recently, our practice was involved with an antimicrobial stewardship project with Pamela Ruegg, D.V.M., and colleagues at Michigan State University. She will be sharing the results of her study in the near future. It offers thoughts on how we can improve antimicrobial use.

I have become aware that “treatment drift” has inadvertently occurred at times. Through discussions on the farm with those involved, cost savings and subsequent enhanced dairy performance can be achieved.

5. Invest in our attitude

I have been in practice long enough to have witnessed times such as these before. It is stressful — and some of you have been here before, too. Others may not have experienced this season yet. This summer has brought severe drought to some of you, excess rainfall in other milksheds, and crazy hot temperatures in the Southwest.

Our attitude is so important, as is the encouragement we give and receive from others! Take a break, at dawn and dusk, to give thanks for the blessings!