CEO of the living assets” is how Siebren Jacobi describes the position of a herd manager. To him, that important role means keeping the herd at Rocking S Dairy in Modesto, Calif., healthy and fertile. Jacobi’s goal is for his cows to reach their fourth lactation and spend as much of their productive life as possible in the “profit phase” after they have paid back the costs of their rearing.

And while the economic factor is a significant motivator for keeping cows around, animal welfare is also a high priority for dairy customers — so it must be for farmers, too. Jacobi, born and raised on a dairy farm in the Netherlands, stressed during the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council Annual Meeting that dairy farmers must be prepared to meet the public’s requests for continually better animal care.

Because of the combination of farm and off-farm factors, Jacobi is a strong believer that raising animals right and making them last longer will be an even bigger part of dairy profitability moving forward. If retail companies decline to buy milk from farms that don’t follow animal welfare standards, for example, Jacobi pointed out this is something agricultural lenders could take into account when determining a farm’s risk potential and thus credit availability.

Start at the beginning

After completing a CowSignals animal care training program last year, Jacobi said he learned that cows in the Netherlands average 3.8 lactations in their lifetime. In California, he said that number is just 1.9.

“Everything comes back to health and fertility,” the herd manager emphasized when discussing how to keep cows in the herd for more lactations.

Without high performance in those areas, a farm can get stuck in a cycle of a high culling rate, Jacobi said. Removing more cows from the herd because they are sick or don’t breed back means you need more replacements, and in that scenario, shortcuts may be made to raise a greater number of heifers. When those animals are not physically ready to be in the milking herd, they are more likely to be culled quicker, fueling the next round of replacements.

“We’re so busy doing things with the cows that we barely have time to take care of them,” Jacobi quipped, pointing out that sometimes the biggest enemy on a farm is the humans.

The elephant in the room to reduce the need for culling milking cows is calf health, he continued. This is the first area where top-notch animal care is crucial for the farm’s success, but it begins long before the calf is born. With more dairies, including Rocking S, making extensive use of sexed semen on heifers, he pointed out that 70% of a heifer calf crop may be born to virgin heifers. However, these are the animals that often get subpar focus in terms of facilities and care. They may have less heat abatement, greater stocking rates, and exposure to more toxins than the milking herd. “The animal that needs the most gets the least,” Jacobi summarized.

The effects of an animal’s stress on its fetus are well documented, so quality calf care must begin with recognizing how we can create a favorable in-utero environment. From there, quality colostrum, disease attention, and housing help a calf develop into a cow that can withstand the cycle of lactation and reproduction multiple times.

Tools to turn the ship

In addition to creating an environment in which animals can thrive, Jacobi is a proponent of genetic change. Genomic testing has made a difference on their farm and is part of the equation of breeding healthier, more fertile cows. “Selection is the quickest route to success,” he described.

Though he wants cows to stick around in the herd for as long as possible, he also wants those cows to have genetics that are worth breeding from. Cows are marked “do not breed” if they fail to conceive after three services. Bulls with high daughter pregnancy rate (DPR) feature prominently in his breeding program. The Rocking S herd has made more genetic progress in DPR, somatic cell score, and mastitis resistance than the Holstein breed as a whole in recent years, Jacobi described by showing genomic testing results. “It is possible to turn the ship genetically,” he noted. However, he also lamented the fact that more bulls high in fertility and health traits are not marketed and available to dairy farmers. “Do we need a survival index next to the profit indexes?” he asked.

Building an efficient herd, which boosts longevity plus economic and environmental sustainability, depends on a combination of phenotypic and genotypic efforts, Jacobi advocated. Farms must be able to provide an environment that keeps animals healthy and allows them to express the genetics they possess, which we can select for thanks to a number of available traits and selection indices. To know where to start, recognize what type of race you’re preparing for, he advised. Is it robots? Grazing? Commercial cows? That provides a baseline of knowing what kind of cow will need to thrive in your system and how to develop it.

Jacobi’s long-term goal is for half of his herd to consist of first- and second-lactation cows and for the other half to be older cows. Right now, about 70% of the herd is first- and second-lactation animals. Making cows that last longer is not an overnight switch. But it will only become more important in the coming decades of improved efficiencies and greater consumer interest. Luckily, we have the tools on both the genetic and management sides to build herds of the types of cows everyone wants to milk — and buy milk from.

For our 1,000+ Producers
Welcome to this new section in Hoard’s Dairyman, tailored specifically to you. Here we will provide content focused on the unique requirements and challenges found on operations milking more than 1,000 cows.