by Gabe Middleton, DVM

Whether prices are high or low, most producers want to capitalize on the opportunity to make more milk, as long as it is done in a cost effective manner. Milk prices are currently quite good, but input costs are at record highs. Even with strong mailbox prices, the need to maximize production is as great as ever. Feed costs are the main driver to increased inputs, but other factors such as labor and fertilizer costs are weighing heavily on producers’ minds.

Making quality forage still remains the single greatest building block to excellent production. An emphasis always needs to be placed on proper harvest dry matters, ensiling and removal from storage. If forage is high quality, reduced purchased feedstuffs can be a tremendous financial savings. While feed is king, this article will focus on other ways to gain production, perhaps outside of the ration on paper.

Cows need to have fresh feed in front of them when they exit the parlor in the morning. There is an opportunity to drive higher intakes if at least 50% of their daily dry matter intake (DMI) is in the bunk in the morning. This is related to the fact that cows are crepuscular animals, meaning that they prefer to graze or eat at dawn and dusk. Empty or sorted bunks mean that cows will lay down prior to eating and there is a tremendous lost opportunity to drive intakes with proper feed delivery times.

Pushing up feed at proper times also drives DMI. Pushups should not just occur at milking time. It is recommended to push up feed four to six times daily. Again, this is a great opportunity to drive intakes without adding any real cost to the diet. Cameras in the barn are a great way to monitor that this is being done properly.

Moving cows to different pens is inevitable on a dairy, but minimizing pen moves deserves some thought. In a perfect situation, after a cow exits the post-fresh group she stays in that same group until dry off. It’s not possible in some situations, but every effort should be made to try to accomplish this. When a cow moves pens, she is forced into the different social dynamic of that particular pen. Invariably her production goes down. Some cows do return to previous production levels after acclimating to the group, but some never do.

A cow comfort audit and time budget audit may also be very revealing on how cows spend their time every day. Observe your cows lying down in stalls. Are they lying straight or diagonal in the stall? A cow lying diagonally indicates that there is either an obstruction to lunging to rise or the loops aren’t designed or mounted properly. A common mistake is cross-through barrier that is too low and affects how the cow lunges when she tries to rise. A cow should be able to easily place her head under the barrier when she tries to stand up.

Stocking density is important. There is a delicate balance between maximizing the number of cows in the barn and the law of diminishing returns of milk production. Every farm is different, however. Typically, when stocking density rises over 30% – 40%, there may be a production drag. Many factors go into determining the right stocking density, with cow comfort and other management being critically important. There are a few pens that can’t be effectively overcrowded. Dry, pre-fresh and post-fresh cows must be maintained at appropriate stocking densities and not overcrowded. Transition cow disease will rob your cows of peak milk, reproductive efficiency and production throughout the lactation.

Culling low production cows helps improve herd productivity and profitability. Sometimes this can even mean culling pregnant cows. Over-conditioned, older cows may present a challenge to transition and if herd inventory is strong, the best decision may be that they leave the herd if production is lower than expected in that demographic. Dairy operators cannot cull their way into good production, but it can be an effective supplement to other good management practices.

Lastly, make sure you are measuring production properly. Pick a metric that considers both fluid production and component production. “Energy-corrected milk” and “pounds of components” are two very good metrics that take both factors into consideration. Along with your farm consultants, audit your dairy and try to determine if there are a few more pounds of milk being left on the table that can be recovered by some simple management changes.