Driving across country roads this week has been a visual joy. The vibrant contrast of deep green foliage topped with yellow tassels give the rolling fields the look of a soft carpet blanketing the land. The regrowth of alfalfa is reaching the cutting stage once again and has us wondering where we will store this bountiful crop. We could not have dreamt this scene back in May when we were turning on the pivots to help the corn germinate and revive the hay fields from their winter nap. When we were blessed with moisture, it was perfect timing. It appears we are hitting the marks to have a great harvest.
    As dairy producers, we are being told by the industry to hit certain benchmarks for continued success and growth. We can use these marks as a way to see if we are measuring up compared to our neighbors and other producers. That is good advice, but I wonder sometimes if we are aiming for the wrong benchmarks. What are we trying to measure? What numbers should we be looking at? What is our end goal? Many of these questions came to my mind after talking with a dairy friend about their farm.
    When the use of rbST was discontinued, their herd production took a hit and dramatic adjustments needed to be made. They reformulated their feed ration to fit the new lower production levels. Leery of how this would impact their financial setting, they waited to run the numbers. It turns out they have a better financial return on the lower production than they did chasing the higher production benchmarks. They may only have a 70-pound per cow bulk tank average, but they have significantly cut their feed costs and labor costs while improving components and reproduction. This is great news, but they struggle with measuring up to everyone else. They may not have the top production numbers, but they are staying in business to milk another day.
    So what numbers should we be using to see if we measure up? Chasing milk production records does not equal profitability. All the inputs needed to reach the higher production levels have a cost. The question is if it is worth it. Do you think the farmer who wins the corn yield contest could afford to manage all his fields the way he does his contest plot? He may win the contest, but what is his return over expenses? Chasing records and earning bragging rights is fun, but it is hard to stay in business. What is the point?
    I was talking with Jim Salfer, our regional dairy extension specialist, about this question of measuring up. He brought up an interesting thought. He wonders if we are measuring and chasing the wrong metrics or numbers. Are we putting emphasis on the wrong numbers to reach our goal of profitability? Many dairymen focus on production per cow as a benchmark. It is a solid hard number we can pull up. The average milk production per cow in Minnesota is 80 pounds per day. Keep in mind that not all herds above the average are profitable and not all herds below are losing money.
    Over 30 years ago, the correlation between milk production per cow and profitability went hand in hand. An increase in production equaled an increase in profits. The differences between herd genetics, technology and managerial skills varied as widely as the production levels. In 1987, when Mark and I first started milking, the average cow in Benton County was making 54 pounds of milk per day. We were at 76 pounds. Fast forward to today and the average cow in Benton County is up to 71 pounds of milk per day; we are sitting at 89. The gap has shrunk and so have the profits. We now have to ask ourselves, what does it really cost to get those last few pounds of milk? Will there be enough return to cover the additional cost? What is that perfect balance between production and profitability? Where is the point of maximizing economic returns? Hard to believe I can actually use this phrase from my college agricultural economics class. The most profit for the least amount of expense.
    The benchmark today should not strictly be the highest bulk tank average. We should be shooting for profitability. If we cannot make a profit, it does not matter how much milk we can get out of our cows. We have to remember that even though we belong to the same industry, we are still individuals with our own production costs and productions levels. We do not all need to shoot for the same magic production number to measure up against everyone else. Let us get over this idea of measuring up in production per cow and put the focus where it needs to be – on profit per cow. Let us measure up in the right areas.
    Natalie, Mark and his brother, Al, Schmitt farm together near Rice, Minn. They milk 100 registered Holsteins under the RALMA prefix. Their four children are great help around the farm and are pushing Natalie out of several jobs. Therefore she is thankful to have something else to do. For questions or comments please e-mail Natalie at mnschmitt@jetup.net.