2018 Regional Dairy Meetings - Recap

On Monday, February 5, the Indiana Dairy Producers kicked off their regional meetings at the Dubois County 4-H Fairgrounds in Bretzville, Indiana.  The day was full of interesting speakers, useful information and good fellowship. Topics covered were animal nutrition, forage analysis and dairy operations with plenty of take-home ideas to implement some new practices on our dairy farms.  


                Dr. Todd Birkle was first in the line-up with his presentation on Unlocking the Potential of Your Future Herd.  He started the day with a challenge to think of our farms five years into the future when he said, “In five years, your entire herd will consist of the heifers born today.”  Birkle’s presentation focused on the correlation between first lactation performance and average daily milk production on the farm.  First lactation production at 10-15 weeks is highly correlated to herd production, thus first lactation sets the ceiling on herd production.

                Heifers coming in well can be expected to milk 29% more in their first lactation.  Keys which have a substantial impact on future production are:

  1.  Health events as a heifer
  2. Genetics
  3. Maturity at calving
  4. Transition

                For the purpose of the presentation, Birkle focused on genetics and maturity at calving.  Regarding genetics he stated, “I’m not going to raise Shih tzus with the intention of going mountain lion hunting.  In other words, bring the right dog to the hunt, and raise super-star heifers.”  We all know milk production is highly heritable and Birkle advises us to invest in the future of our herds by staying on top of what a good bull looks like and choosing the best sires for profitability.

                Maturity and age at first calving correlate to first lactation production.  Birkle stated, “There is a false belief that first lactation animals catch up.”  This is not true, research proves average total 305D milk over three lactations correlates to heifers’ age fresh at first calving.  According to research by Curran et al, published in Pro Animal Scientist, 2013, the optimal age at first calving is 23-26 months with a post calving weight of 12-1300 pounds, or 85% of mature body weight (MBW).  A springer should be at 95% (MBW) pre-calving, while heifers at 1400 and above post-calving perform the best.  One pound of body weight pre-calving equals seven pounds of milk post-calving, and for every pound of weight gained post-calving, it costs seven pounds of milk. 

                Birkle advised a common mistake we often make is how we measure a success.  If the true outcome of success is 2% morbidity, this may sound good, but we also need to know what is causing this 2% to happen.  To accomplish the goal of raising super-star heifers, you need data.  Weigh cows at third and fourth lactation so you have a benchmark average to determine the weight your heifers need to be when entering the milking herd. Logistically it is difficult to weigh heifers.  Hip height is one of the best indicators of weight and an easier way to monitor heifers for optimal size at first service.  Birkle ended with the advice to “Delay breeding heifers until they have enough growth; you cannot grow heifers to reach maturity at 24 months and breed them to calve at 21 months.”

            Fabian Bernal is the DFA Mideast region Production Manager, in charge of milk quality, dairy performance evaluations, and programs development.  His presentation entitled Your Farm Under Today’s Microscope reminded all attending that people are interested in what we do on the farm more than ever before. 

                Bernal noted there is a correlation between animal care and environmental stewardship and opponents of animal farming, just like farmers, are embracing technology and getting better at their jobs.  People engage online with videos that show abused animals coupled with environmental ills.  Drones are allowing people to see, and record, more than ever before.  Down cows, dehorning, and rough handling of cows are being paired with overflowing manure storage systems and fish kills in lakes and streams.  These videos create distractions and a way for our detractors to collect funds and enable themselves to create more problems for us in agriculture.  To protect ourselves from animal rights activist groups, (or what in reality are farmer hate groups), we have to look at our protocols with a keen eye and determine are we doing the right thing at the right time, and monitoring issues caused by lameness and nutrition on our farms.

                Farms are vulnerable to former employees making accusations of improper animal care, family members can turn against one another and cause public relations issues, the media can target you, neighbors may misunderstand challenges you face, and management can make mistakes.  It is important to be proactive, to be vigilant and to take steps that reduce risk.  Communicate with employees about what is acceptable and what is not, and how to report when observing something that is abuse.  Install video surveillance on your farm to protect you and your animals.  Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Develop relationships with your neighbors.  Have a written herd health plan and animal care policy.

                Dairy farmers are independent by nature, and in essence, the kings of their own kingdoms who do not appreciate infringements by external influences. Bernal discussed how participating in the FARM program aids dairy farmers with putting the pieces into place that protect our farms from outside interferences and regulations because there is significant interest in what we do, and how we do it. In today’s environment of transparency, and instant communication via social media, our business risks are amplified.  Bernal stated, “We in the dairy industry must make a commitment to both work on solutions and be willing to move the bar or it will be set for us.”  The FARM program does not tell you how to operate your farm, it has created a unified voice to tell the story of animal care to our customers and consumers.  Bernal stated, “The evaluators of the FARM program are not going to tell you how to milk your cows, if you want to milk them upside down, fine, just write down how you turn them over and how you attach the milkers that way.”  By providing basic information such as a written herd health plan, employee animal care agreements, and a veterinary client patient agreement (VCPR), we enable the FARM program to provide proof points illustrating our commitment to animal care.  This in turn, helps to protect our milk market and the sustainability of our farms.

                Bernal also commented on the importance of the Secure Milk Supply and urged everyone present to investigate. http://securemilksupply.org/   The Secure Milk Supply plan forms the basis of all decisions that effect the movement of the milk supply from state to state and internationally for exports.  If there ever is an outbreak of some type of disease, the secure milk supply offers movement guidance for producers, haulers, processing plants, and officials managing the outbreak, and explains how movement restrictions will be put in place for animals and animal products (milk!) The current administration recently withdrew funding from this program which means it will fall to the states on how to administer it.  Bernal cautions this may lead to territorial disputes and advises everyone in the dairy community to be aware of the risks involved.


                Taking Your Forage From Good to Great was the topic of Dr. David Combs’ presentation.  Dr. Combs suggested we take our forages up to the next level because “this ain’t your daddy’s forage anymore.”  He started off by asking what causes swings in the dairy diets and then answered, most of the time it is energy.  Diet energy is impacted by two kinds of carbohydrates: fiber, measured by NDF (42 is ideal/average), and starch, measured by starch.    He then reminded us, RFV doesn’t effect digestibility and has really been used most effectively as a way for growers to more easily price their hay. 

                Combs spoke favorably of the improved grasses which are now available for high producing dairy cows, some with even higher digestibility than alfalfa or corn silage.  GMO varieties that “turn off” the lignin production create a more efficient feed and high quality tall fescues with low lignin and no endophytes are now available.  Combs stated, “Milk production can go up by taking poor corn silage out of the ration and adding in high quality fescue.”  Reduced lignin varieties may allow you to increase days between harvest and give you a much larger harvest window for high quality forages along with higher tonnage yield. 

                What makes a better forage?  Combs recommends forage testing analysis and tracking NDF digestibility. To make an even better forage, Combs said both NDF and NDF digestibility are needed to assess forage quality correctly because the driver in profitability of forages is the yield ratio of milk/ton.  Both energy and digestibility correlate with production.  Too high starch will depress fat production and straw will increase fat.  Fiber digestibility will vary because of moisture, temperature and sun intensity; possibly two-thirds of fiber digestibility is determined by growing conditions and the environment.  Dr. Combs reiterated accurate forage analysis is key to determining forage quality and recommends Rock River Labs and focusing on the TTNDFD number to evaluate digestibility.  TTNDFD measures rumenfill, TDN estimation, diet formulation, herd diagnostics, and quality index; 42 is the average score, and Combs stated, “anything under 40 is scary, and anything over 50 is almost impossible.”  When asked if it is possible to have a ration that is too highly digestible if feeding both low lignin hay and BMR corn silage, Combs stated, “no, I do not think it is a problem, a one unit change in TTNDFD corresponds to a one-pound change in milk yield.” - Somula Schwoeppe


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