SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – High stocking density rates have long been frowned upon in the industry with university research suggesting high rates negatively impact milk production and cow health.

    But what if dairy farmers could stock their pens high without influencing the herd’s overall performance other than to increase the amount of solids produced per stall per facility?
    “Think about your farm’s profitability and think about the milk solids produced per stall because ultimately that’s what you’re getting paid for,” Tim Doherty said. “Take the same facility you’re already paying on, … and I challenge you think about what you’re doing to produce more solids that you can ship down the road.”
    Doherty, a dairy business manager with Form-A-Feed, used real-life examples to speak on improving profits through higher stocking densities during his presentation, “Helpful tips for managing high stocking density in dairy cows,” March 30 at the Central Plains Dairy Expo in Sioux Falls.
    By greatly increasing stocking density, and if managed well, opportunity to improve income over feed costs is almost inevitable.
    Doherty gave the example of a farm increasing stocking density on a 450-cow herd where facilities were at 100%. Milk production was respectable at 85 pounds per cow per day with a 4% butterfat and 3.2% protein content; the cost to feed the herd was $0.13 per pound of dry matter per cow per day and a feed efficiency of 1.5. The income over feed cost was reported at $162,000 for the herd.
    Increasing cow numbers for a 145% stocking density, but maintaining milk production, resulted in a net income of $235,000. Maximizing the facilities at 160% stocking density provided the dairy farmer with nearly $1.1 million in potential net income.
    “This is happening right now,” Doherty said. “We met with dairymen and women who are overstocking successfully, and we want to learn from them.”
    Doherty briefly profiled five Minnesota farms he and his team are working with. They have all increased stocking density – upward of 145% to 165% – to maximize their facilities while not sacrificing milk production or quality and cow health.
    Of the farms profiled in Doherty’s presentation, all had the following commonalities.
    When looking at factors of cow comfort, the dairies all use deep-bedded sand stalls that are cleaned and managed daily, and are milking three times a day where time away from the pen is about 30 to 45 minutes.
    Doherty also noted that pen design has influenced cow comfort and the ability to increase stocking density. Two-row pens tend to outperform 3-row pens; the farms pushing 160% stocking density are likely 4-row facilities.
    “We know right up front that 3-row pens are overstocked with headlocks no matter how many cows you have there,” he said. “It can still work to increase stocking density, but maybe you can’t push it as much.”
    Observations also reveal that newly-built barns include a little wider crossover alley to create less opportunity for negative social interaction in the pens as cows navigate through the stalls and feed bunk.
    Additionally, each farm has a distinct and prescribed hoof trimming schedule of at least twice per lactation.
    “Hoof trimming doesn’t happen by accident,” Doherty said. “You have to have a disciplined schedule because we’re asking a little bit more of these cows, and they’re standing more. They have to have good wheels on them.”
    In regards to feed management, Doherty encouraged dairy farmers to aim for 3% to 5% refusals by weight so that feed is always available when a cow approaches the feed space. He suggested refusals then be fed to a low-producing pen or youngstock.  
    Feed should also be pushed up to these highly-stocked pens two hours post feeding the first batch. A second feeding should also be considered at three to five hours later to accommodate slug feeding tendencies.
    “That is very important and something I recommend,” Doherty said. “Cows that eat first are going to be full and have a nice big meal. As that second group comes up to eat, drop that second feeding.”
    Doherty recommended splitting batches between pens so that a farmer is mixing the same number of batches but spreading it out among the pens to ensure all cows are receiving fresh, available feed. This approach will also accommodate a pen’s social tendencies where a group of cows feed at a certain time while the other group lies down after milking.
    Farmers will also have to work with their nutritionist to ensure the diet consists of highly digestible neutral detergent fiber and physically effective NDF to maintain rumen pH.
    “Poor forage quality is not doomed to be a bad diet,” Doherty said. “It’s not necessarily a negative to the farm if you drop some forage out and feed more digestible NDF to get energy and good, healthy milk production through a high stocking density scenario.”
    Doherty suggested monitoring the de novo fats of the milk to measure the success of the ration.
    Other common successes of high stocking density farms include properly functioning equipment and facility design to maximize efficiency in the parlor as well as a team member who manages and communicates with people in the barn and in the parlor.
    “Do not start increasing stocking density until you have a good team,” Doherty said. “Otherwise, it will be a train wreck. These people will make you or break you.”
    In today’s market, it makes sense to fill the barns and maximize the facilities’ efficiencies to capture more solids per stall. Increasing stocking density can be a solution to this if done well with the right management.
    “Milking cows right now is a largely profitable venture,” Doherty said. “There is not one silver bullet here, but when put together, it makes sense for what it takes to be profitable with high stocking density.”