Finding their sweet spot

Reducing inversions creates success for Sunset Farms

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ALLENTON, Wis. – By focusing on minimizing the number of cows that are producing more protein than butterfat, Sunset Farms has built a healthier, higher-producing animal. In the last five years, the farm reduced inversions by 20%. As a result, components have climbed, and cows are in better shape.
Karen Hughes, the farm’s herd manager, and her husband, Darren Hughes, the assistant herdsman and feed manager, were ecstatic when the farm achieved a long-awaited goal of 7 pounds of combined fat and protein. But reaching this objective required patience and perseverance.
“It seemed to take forever to get to 7 pounds, but we finally made it thanks to advice from our veterinarian,” Darren said. “For a long time, we were really close, and now this is our second year at 7 pounds. Hopefully we can maintain it.”
Sunset Farms has been in Karen’s family since 1847, and she is the sixth generation on the farm where they milk 1,200 cows, finish 200 steers a year, and farm 3,500 acres of haylage, BMR corn for silage, grain corn, soybean, winter wheat, winter rye and canary grass. Currently, eight members of the fifth and sixth generations as well as two longtime employees own and operate the farm with help from 25 full-time employees. Karen and Darren’s three children – Haley, 13, Hayden, 10, and Hunter, 5 – represent the seventh generation at Sunset Farms.  
Inversions were at 23% in 2017 when the farm’s veterinarian encouraged Karen and Darren to focus on this aspect. The couple took his recommendation to heart, and today, inversions are at 2%-3%. The industry standard is for inverted cows to make up no more than 10% of the herd. But even that was not a number Karen and Darren were willing to live with.
“We really watch nutrition with regards to fiber, making sure we feed the right kinds with good particle length,” Karen said. “That was the biggest step to meet our goal.”
Breaking the herd down into three groups – first lactation, second lactation and third lactation – cows were further examined according to days in milk to try to eliminate inversions and also create a more persistent peak in production.
“By doing this, our fat cows went away, but butterfat stayed high,” Karen said. “When cows are milking well through their entire lactation, they never get fat. We prevented a lot of long-term health changes and are drying off cows at the right body condition, which helps them get through the transition period easier and be more successful in their lactation.”
Maintaining a lower inversion rate long term also helped milk production rise across the board.
Cows are milked three times a day and average 95 pounds of milk per cow per day. Butterfat is at 4.2% and protein is 3.2%. Cows in their third lactation or later comprise 47% of the herd.
“Fat and protein are up a lot in the last three years,” Karen said.
The farm’s nutritionist does an audit for the ration once a year to help ensure the dairy is feeding a diet compatible with achieving its intended goals.
“When you do things every day, it’s really easy to let little things slip,” Darren said. “The audit helps ensure we’re doing things correctly to keep us on track.”
Maintaining close communication with all team members has been an important facet of the farm’s success. Karen and Darren hold monthly meetings with their veterinarian, nutritionist, calf manager and a parlor representative from BouMatic. Using Dairy Herd Improvement Association reports, the team is able to address items before they become a problem and will discuss seasonal changes such as when to change dips.
“Working to achieve our goals is definitely a team effort, and I think meeting every month helps a lot,” Karen said.
In addition, they meet weekly with their veterinarian as well as their nutritionist and talk outside of scheduled meetings also – critical conversations that feed into the farm’s proactive approach. Karen said they also use a translator who helps explain details to barn employees, ensuring they are on the same page as Karen when it comes to her goals for the herd.
“Communication helps everyone know what the goals are on the farm, and each person is held responsible for their area,” she said.
Karen and Darren work in tandem to ensure diets are geared to meeting expectations in the bulk tank. A big change in strategy occurred in 2016 when they stopped using bovine somatotropin.  
“Not using BST changed our methods, and managing the diet correctly became even more important,” Darren said. “We focused on feed quality to get the production we wanted.”
The dairy lost some volume when removing BST from their regimen, but what they lost in liquid, they gained in solids as components crept up.
Two years ago, Darren started using a SCiO cup for instant dry matter testing to gain quick feed quality results. He tests forages twice a week and corn once a month.
“I can sample a large variety of feedstuffs by using the SCiO cup,” he said. “It’s even very handy to use before chopping as it lets me know if the field is ready. If the field is wet, then we’ll wait. I can use it when packing hay too.”
Previously, Darren used a Koster Moisture Tester, but he said it took longer to get results. With the SCiO cup, he sees results in five seconds, and accuracy is within 1.5%. The device also helps him make feeding decisions based on weather events.
“If I come up to face feed and it has too much moisture, I can make adjustments to the ration,” Darren said. “I may feed more then to compensate for water weight.”
In 2017, Sunset Farms started using a monitoring system to track rumination in transition cows – another decision that helped boost herd health and ultimately assure fewer inverted animals.  Karen said cows wear monitoring collars approximately 30 days pre- and post-fresh.
“This allows us to catch those transition cows sooner and give them the help they need,” Karen said. “It’s easier to manage employees when they can see on paper which cows aren’t doing well. The monitoring system makes it easier to find those cows. It flags them before they’re showing symptoms, and we give them a nice drenching before they’re running really low. This helps prevent milk fever and gets cows off to a better start.”  
Karen said reproduction on the farm has always been good, which is why they did not invest in collars for the whole herd. The current pregnancy rate is 32%, but their goal is to get to 34%.
Working to improve all aspects related to the FARM program and the Dairy Farmers of America Gold Standard Dairy Program, Darren said, is built into the routine at Sunset Farms as well.
“We’re always looking to improve and make sure we’re doing what’s good for the cows,” Darren said. “The quality of work we do is like our signature. If you want people to have a good outlook on your farm, you have to hold yourself accountable to do the best you can every time.”

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