Travis Holmes preps a cow in the milking parlor at Holmesville Dairy, Argyle, Wis. The herd has one of the highest pregnancy rates in the United States, at 35 percent, and was recently honored for the second year in a row by the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council.PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
Travis Holmes preps a cow in the milking parlor at Holmesville Dairy, Argyle, Wis. The herd has one of the highest pregnancy rates in the United States, at 35 percent, and was recently honored for the second year in a row by the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council.
ARGYLE, Wis. - Since 2009, things have taken a turn for the better at Holmesville Dairy near Argyle, Wis. The Lafayette County farm's dairy cattle reproduction has vastly improved - so much so that the 480-cow operation recently won its second platinum award in a row from the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council.
The council, which bestowed a mere six platinum awards during 2015, said the winning farms emphasize such factors as cow comfort, nutrition and sound breeding programs.
Tim and Penny Holmes are the senior partners in the dairy. They're joined by their son, Travis, and his wife, Steph. Jim, Tim's brother, is the herdsman and one of seven employees.
Their veterinarian, B.J. Jones, from Center Hill Vet Clinic in Darlington, Wis., along with Katie Martin, with animal health company Zoetis, nominated Holmesville Dairy for the DCRC award. Jones noted that the Holmes farm achieved an impressive 35 percent pregnancy rate in 2015.
"A 35 percent preg rate is one of the highest in the country," Jones said. "There are very few farms that achieve that high a level. It's a feather in these guys' hats, for sure."
Many factors combined to improve the Holstein's reproductive success. Tim said one of those was the electric company installing new lines seven years ago. He won't say the farm suffered from stray voltage, but he did say reproduction has improved since then.
Another change from 2009 has played a large role. "That was when the milk price crashed," Tim said.
Jones suggested forming a management team.
"He knew we were having some issues with getting everything going and running smoothly," Tim said.
The management team includes Tim; Jones; Mary Elvekrog, with Badgerland Financial; and Rod Wautlet, with Vita Plus. They meet every three months, first for a financial analysis and then with Travis, Jim, and other employees to talk about cow care.
One thing the team looks at is the farm's cost to produce 100 pounds of milk. That's important, Tim said, because Holmesville Dairy participates in the Livestock Gross Margin-Dairy program to help protect their milk price.
The Holmeses have been signing up for LGM-Dairy the past three years, using it to protect the price on roughly half the farm's milk.
"I look at it like crop insurance," Tim said. "You hope you don't have to use it."
Tim figures the farm can produce a hundredweight of milk for about $16. LGM-Dairy gives the Holmeses a floor of $15, and a recent mailbox price came in at $16.56 or so, according to Tim.
That doesn't leave a lot of room for profit right now - just 56 cents. But Tim said the farm has another income stream besides the sale of milk.
"We're still making money because reproduction is going well," Tim said. "We sold about 60 springing heifers last year. That makes a big difference in your income. We'll sell maybe 80 this year, but the price is lower."
Holmesville Dairy has heifers to sell thanks to a lower culling rate and the use of sexed semen. Tim said the cull rate is 34 percent, and cows are leaving the herd mainly for lower production - not due to health problems.
"We're culling cows that are giving 80 pounds a day," Tim said.
The management team examines the reasons cows are being culled, and when. If they're exiting at under 60 days in milk, something could be amiss with the fresh-cow management.
The farm has used sexed semen on its heifers the past four years. The first two services are with sexed semen, and if a third is needed, that one is regular semen. That strategy is working. Jones said the conception rate is 50 percent, while the heat detection rate stands at 70 percent.
"It's nice to do herd checks when there aren't a lot of open cows," Jones said. "Everyone is a lot happier."
Holmesville Dairy has shortened the time between herd health checks. They're now done every Tuesday instead of every two weeks.
Cows are bred back a little later, too. At one time they were re-bred 58 days after calving, but that has been extended to 68 days. The extra 10 days give cows more time to recover from the stresses of calving and lets the farm capture more peak milk production.
Much of the credit for the herd's reproductive improvement goes to Jim Holmes, according to his brother. Jim once was a full-time milker, but he switched to full-time reproductive work four years ago.
"It definitely pays to have one person working on reproduction and nothing else," Tim said.
Jim's duties include vaccinating the milking herd and dry cows, assigning identification numbers to new calves and detecting heats. He also drenches each cow right after she calves. Tim said doing that gets her rumen filled with alfalfa meal and electrolytes.
The result of Jim's work, according to Tim, has been very few displaced abomasa and few cases of ketosis.
Tim Heiring, with Genex, also deserves a pat on the back, Holmes said. Heiring chooses the sires and handles the A.I. work.
Travis, Tim's son, has been a big help, according to his dad. Tim graduated from Southwest Tech in ag mechanics and then joined the Holmesville operation.
"Things have really improved since Travis came back from school at Fennimore. Milk production has increased and we have a better handle on the herd's reproduction," Tim said.
On three-time-a-day milking in a double-8 milking parlor, the rolling herd average is about 27,450 pounds, Tim said. The butterfat test is 3.3 percent and the protein test is 3.08 percent.
Milk production has risen approximately 2,000 pounds per cow since Jim became began focusing on cattle reproduction, Tim said. What's more, the somatic cell count has fallen. It was once near 200,000 but now averages closer to 110,000, Tim said.
The Holmeses have made physical changes that have improved cow reproduction. During their most recent expansion in 2000, they built another freestall barn and increased cow numbers from 140 to 300. Now the farm has three barns - one for dry cows, one for fresh cows, and one for the milking herd.
Sixty-inch-diameter fans were installed over the stalls in the dry cow barn six years ago to help cows through the stresses of calving. Tim said the results were noticeable right away.
"The stalls were utilized better. The cows laid down longer. They weren't standing by the waterers, which they tended to do in the summertime," he said.
In 2012, sprinklers and misters were installed over the feed alleys. As a result, cows spend more time at the feedbunk, Tim said.
"They're definitely worth the investment," Tim said about the misters and sprinklers. "The hardest thing for us now is deciding whether to drill a third well. We're struggling with water capacity in the summertime."
If another herd expansion takes place, an extra well will be needed, Tim said. But a decision to milk more cows will depend on Travis and the next generation.
At age 54, Tim said, "life continues to get better. It really does, for me, because of the next generation coming in and taking on more responsibility."