Group cows to maximize profitability

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Grouping cows on a dairy can have many benefits, including maximizing efficiencies, increasing income over feed costs and minimizing stress.  

Grouping strategies generally fall into two categories — nutritional groups and management groups. Often these strategies overlap and complement each other. In nutritional groups, each pen of cows is often fed a separate ration that matches their specific nutritional needs. With management groups, cows are split based on their parity (first-lactation versus older cows), body condition, stage of lactation or gestation.  

Herd size and physical facilities often limit the number of possible groups.  Multiple groups often require additional labor to move and manage the different groups and to mix and feed multiple rations. We’ve all heard the phrase, “No two dairy farms are alike.” While this is true, farms may consider some common grouping strategies to maximize efficiencies, animal wellbeing and performance.  

Grouping by parity

If animal numbers and facilities allow, it is advantageous to group cows by parity with first-lactation cows (primiparous) in one group and mature cows (multiparous) in another group. Grouping by parity should be a high priority even if rations are not different.

Grouping by parity has the greatest benefit for primiparous cows. Heifers take smaller bites and spend more time feeding than mature cows. Since mature cows are usually more dominant and can push heifers away from feeding spaces, grouping them separately may ensure that heifers have enough time to feed throughout the day. Research from Spain found that heifers grouped separately ruminate more and drink more. A companion study published by Dr. Alex Bach showed that housing heifers separately also provided the added benefits of increased efficiency of fat-corrected milk production and less bodyweight loss in the first month of lactation. The improvement in milk fat production might be associated with both the increase in rumination and the greater number of meals per day observed in heifer-only groups.

While this article is focused primarily on lactating grouping strategies, separating pre-fresh dry cows into these same parity groups (if facilities and management allow) can provide health and production benefits.  

Grouping by stage of lactation

Fresh cow groups allow for diet modifications to accommodate their low intakes, enhance milk production and reduce metabolic issues. We can target specific feed additives to fresh cows in the first few weeks of lactation. Separating fresh cows has secondary benefits, including a smaller group size to allow for more intensive individual cow observations and implementation of health-monitoring protocols. In most cases, understocking may be easier to obtain in a smaller group providing plenty of bunk space.  A separate fresh cow group also allows the implementation of greater milking frequency such as four-times-per-day milking if so desired.

Cows will partition nutrients differently depending on their stage of lactation and gestation. If size permits, multiple lactating ration groups will allow for more precise targeting of nutrients and additives designed to improve feed efficiency and productivity.  Early lactation cows will respond profitably to a higher-quality diet balanced for amino acids, higher levels of fat and fermentable carbohydrates. Late-lactation cows can maintain their production while controlling body condition on a more basic diet with feedstuffs such as fermentable fiber sources. These late-lactation groups can also be a logical place to utilize some of the lactating total mixed ration refusals for operations that may not have heifers on-site.

Forage quality plays a key role in performance on any dairy. The wide range of planting, harvesting and storing goals depends on several factors, including for which groups of animals specific forages are targeted. A good example is hybrids with lower lignin and higher fiber digestibility such as brown midrib corn silage. The tradeoff between yields and quality often results in partial acres planted with BMR corn and some with conventional corn. Grouping cows by stage of lactation can allow a dairy to target their highest-quality forages to fresh and early lactation cows, which are most limited by rumen fill, to see the greatest benefit from the increase in fiber digestibility.    

If your herd size and facilities allow for multiple groups, consider a fresh cow group and separating younger cows from mature cows to maximize performance and profitability. Additional benefits can be seen by grouping cows based on stage of lactation and production. Work with your nutritionist to determine the best grouping strategies to maximize income over feed cost.

Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.

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