A recent summer tour sponsored by Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania made a stop at the Smyser farm in York, PA. The Smyser farm might not be one of the largest in the area but the family operates it like tightly run ship.
“We’ve always strived to get the highest production,” said Brian Smyser, the seventh generation on the farm. “We were high herd in the state in 1991.”
The tie stall barn holds 68 cows. With 75 dry cows and assorted young stock included, the total is about 225 head on the farm.
Reproduction receives a lot of attention on the farm and Brian says a good repro program begins with feed. “We try to get five to six cuttings of alfalfa,” he said. “This year we chopped the first cutting in early May. The sooner you get it out of the field, the better.” Brian recalls one year the alfalfa was cut and remained in the field for two weeks. “There was only a chance of sporadic storms,” he recalled, “but we got seven inches of rain. We couldn’t get back in the field and we struggled (with production) that year.”
Brian maintains a five to six-year rotation on alfalfa to keep protein high. He also keeps equipment up-to-date to avoid breakdowns during critical harvest times. “When it’s ready, we can go to the field and start chopping,” he said. “An hour can make a big difference. If it gets too windy, we wait so we don’t lose all the leaves.”
The herd has been on a TMR since 1998 and Brian says the switch resulted in some breeding and production issues before those issues were resolved. “It all comes down to key forages,” he said. “We feed 123 pounds as-fed and 63 or 64 pounds of dry matter per cow.”
Cows are fed six pounds of roasted soybeans, six pounds of purchased concentrate, 21 pounds of shelled corn that’s been run through a hammer mill, about 38 pounds of corn silage and 47 pounds of haylage. The only purchased feeds are calf starter, a concentrate and yeast. Brian noted cows are turned out to pasture after evening milking five to six days a week, depending on breeding cycles, from spring through fall. While outside, they’re fed from a covered feed bunk.
Even though the operation isn’t pasture-based, cow travel lanes are carefully constructed with layers of stone so cows don’t become muddy when walking back and forth. The pasture area is somewhat elevated and Brian strives to keep the entire area covered with grass so cows remain clean and dry.
“I watch the cows as I’m feeding,” said Brian. “When I get them up to bring them in in the morning, I can see which cows are in heat.” The herd veterinarian visits every two weeks to help manage breeding, which Brian says is an important aspect of the farm’s repro program. Brian doesn’t rely on Ovsynch most of the year, but uses it occasionally in winter. Tail paint on the cows and patches on heifers aid in heat detection, and Brian does all the breeding.
The herd includes several main cow families with strong genomics. The A, P and S families dominate the herd. “One-quarter of the herd goes back to April,” said Brian, noting a 6th-lactation Excellent cow.
Brian has very strict protocol for breeding, including at least a 40-day dry period, but he won’t continue to breed a cow that doesn’t settle. He expects lower production from cows who calve in spring and will peak during summer, despite feeding Thermal Care and tunnel ventilation in the barn. “I won’t breed a cow more than a year, and I won’t treat a cow more than five times in one lactation,” he said. “Some Amish farmers are willing to purchase cows from me if that cow is milking 70 pounds — they’ll try to get them settled with a bull.” Brian says cows that milk around 20,000 pounds on their first lactation will have a chance to do better the next time.
Cows are expected to maintain not only high averages, but also high components; and with Brian’s feeding program, most cows achieve what he’s after. “When they’re producing that much milk, they have to have enough energy,” said Brian. “The herd average is over 30,000 pounds a year, with fat at 3.7 to 3.8 and 3.0 protein.”
At one time, the ration included more corn silage than haylage, but is now heavier on haylage. With the switch, issues with fatty livers and ketosis have all but disappeared. Brian does most of the milking and can monitor cows closely for metabolic issues and deal with them immediately.
“We check cows (for pregnancy) at 26 days with ultrasound, and if they’re open, I can synchronize them if I have to,” said Brian. “We also do a lot of flushing of our high genomic cows.” Brian believes the sooner an animal calves the better, and has calved heifers as early as 20 months.
Bulls are raised on the farm and about 60 percent of them go to dairy farms as breeding bulls. Bulls are sold as young as right out of the calf hutches to large enough to breed cows. The remaining bull calves are raised and sold privately for beef. Of the 30 to 40 heifers born each year, those that don’t remain in the herd are sold to dairy farms as replacements.
This year, Brian started genomic testing all heifers. “Looking at the genomic breakdown on paper and looking at the cows in the barn, I’d say it’s about 75 to 80 percent correct,” said Brian. “It has definitely paid off for us in both heifer and bull sales.”
Brian’s suggestion for those just starting with genomic testing is to test cows who have high parent averages. He noted the Holstein Association’s Enlight program makes it easy to access genomic information.
Although producing outstanding forages to maintain a highly productive herd takes a lot of time, Brian and his family have added a fall festival to the farm. With the farm’s location on the intersection of two heavily traveled roads, not far from York, PA, everything that happens on the farm is highly visible and Brian wants to make sure he maintains good public relations. Brian estimates about 2,500 children attended last year. The festival includes a maze, pumpkin chunkin, a hayride to the pumpkin patch, a corn maze and educational activities. Each year, Brian adds one new attraction.
He considered holding a summer event, but he’s already busy with crops as well as 90 acres of dry hay, 15 acres of sweet corn and 15 acres of pumpkins.
“We don’t make a lot considering the time spent and extra insurance,” said Brian, “but it’s worth it for the positive public relations.”