September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Not your grandfather's dairy

By Jim Bennett- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Times change. In 34 years of practice, I have seen a lot of changes. Not the least of which is how farmers make hay. This used to be an all summer sort of job; cut some, chop with a pull-type chopper, haul with wagons, blow in to the silo with an eight-inch pipe, cut some more and repeat until maybe you decide to bale some, hire a bunch of high school kids to stack bales, work around rains, start on the oats that were planted with the new seeding, start on second crop and keep repeating the process until fall. The other day, a farmer told me they chopped 500 acres in one day, starting in the afternoon and finishing at 4 a.m. Yikes.
How about planting corn? One fellow told me they now plant at 13 mph. Planters are wider than any other implement, planter boxes are controlled by GPS and the tractors pretty much drive themselves.
Things have changed a lot at the cow end of the dairy as well. It used to be that a bulk tank somatic cell count of 200,000 was high quality milk. Not anymore - the DHI average for the entire United States has been right at 200,000 for the last two years. There are farms that produce more milk per cow (more than 100 pounds) than average SCC (more than 100, in thousands). This is now common. One dairyman told me he has treated five cows for mastitis in the first four months of the year on his 600 cow dairy.
It used to be that 15-25 percent of heifers would not make it to calving due to death losses and poor reproduction. Now, we see herds with less than three percent death loss to calving routinely. Some farms easily have times where 100 or more calves are raised with no deaths. I was looking at one farm's records last week and saw that their 12 month pregnancy rate for heifers was 50 percent. That is pregnancy rate, not conception rate.
We used to think that high producing herds had pretty good cow health if less than 10 percent of calving cows got a DA. Now we expect less than two percent, and producers achieve this all the time. It used to be common for 10-15 percent of fresh cows to get milk fever. Now it is hard to find one case per year on many farms. Leptospirosis, IBR and BVD used to be pretty common. With the exception of an occasional BVD PI calf, we almost never find these organisms any more.
Milk production? Oh, my. In 1981, the highest herd in our county had a RHA of about 18,000 pounds of milk. One client recently told me they have not been below 100 pounds per cow per day for several months. I was in a high group on another farm the other day and the nutritionist said the group was averaging 140 pounds per day. Individuals in that group can peak over 200 pounds per day. Remarkable. And by the way, it is now common for Holstein herds to average over 100 pounds of milk per cow with average butterfat percentage over 3.8. No more 3.2 percent tests.
Heifers used to calve at 28 months, maybe 30 on most farms. Now we have farms that consistently calve at 21 or 22 months, and spread of age between them is only a month or two. These cows are just about as big as they used to be at 28 months of age. Some of that is because of how well they grow as calves. We used to think that just survival to weaning qualified as success. Now farmers expect between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds of gain per day while on milk. One client told me recently that they were weaning calves at 60 days of age and 270 pounds of body weight. Instead of skinny little, bawling calves in hutches we see brutes that look like they will walk off with the hutch if spooked.
When the term pregnancy rate first became commonly used, we thought 18 percent was pretty darn good. Now some herds achieve rates over 30 percent, and 18 percent means we have more work to do. We also used to see barns that were not full. Now, by combining great reproduction with great calf rearing the average dairy now has more heifers than they know what to do with. They are stacked up everywhere, old hay barns, pastures and other places, and farmers are always culling cows because they need the room. They are selling baby heifer calves like mad. This would have been a sacrilege not so long ago.
The good news is that dairymen are more and more efficient at producing milk every year. More milk is produced per unit of input and unit of waste than ever before. That is great for society and for the planet. You should all be darn proud of this fact. The bad news is that these efficient dairymen are your competition. Those who continually produce more for less make it harder for the rest to survive. Competition drives change. In another 34 years, I will most likely be dead, but I would sure like to know what the dairy farm of 2049 will look like. It will not be your grandfather's dairy farm; I am pretty sure of that.[[In-content Ad]]


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