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Curbing milk production during COVID-19 supply chain disruption: Adversity or opportunity?

April 8, 2020
Dairy Cows feeding in a barn

April 8, 2020

Author : Brent Corrigan

With the current restaurant shutdowns and the planned discarding of some Ontario milk, it’s easy for dairy farmers to panic and make knee-jerk herd management decisions that may impact their future production and herd health.

In working with successful dairy operations in the agribusiness sector for the past 29 years, there are several solid herd management decisions I have seen implemented successfully during such supply chain disruptions. I’ve outlined some of them below.

Get informed about your herd’s diet. Now is a great time to enhance your relationship with your nutritionist and get to know the details of your herd’s diet. With social distancing in place, your nutritionist should be open to justifying ration costs and explaining what additives are included in your diet and why. As a result of the poor 2019 growing season, additives such as live yeast, rumen modifiers and mycotoxin solutions may be built into your diet to safeguard animal health and performance. Your nutritionist should be able to confidently explain how these additives work and their return on investment within the diet. If rations decisions are made only on the upfront cost per cow, removing these important technology solutions could have a detrimental long-term effect on herd health.

Cull open and low-production cows. For dairy farms that are under filling their quota, milking an open cow that is producing in excess of the ration and fixed costs is justified. For those in excess of their quota, it makes perfect sense to cull this cow from the herd as quickly as possible, provided she is fit to market. This is a great opportunity to stretch precious forage stocks while improving overall herd averages. There have been countless studies illustrating the heritability of low production and how removing low-end producers can improve herd performance and profitability.

High-SCC and chronic-mastitis cows. One valuable report that is available through Lactanet is the tank report (see example below).

If dairy farms have no more open cows to cull, this is a great place to check for eligible candidates. The report ranks the cows that are contributing the most to the SCC average. It also shows the linear score on the current test and the number of previous milk tests in which the linear score for that individual cows was > 4, or 200,000 cells/ml. The report also shows the cumulative economic loss. High SCC counts and multiple high linear scores could help pinpoint the chronic high-infection cows that could spread contagious mastitis, like Staph aureus, to the rest of the herd.

Scrutinize the data carefully. Do you or your nutritionist analyze milk production by sorting herd lists from highest to lowest production? If so, you may be missing an opportunity to identify “average” or “broken” cows. It’s easy — and a lot more fun — to look at the high-production cows, but it’s really the bottom-end individuals that we should be scrutinizing. Low-production cows who are not normally low-production cows helps pinpoint the “pinch points” in your nutrition and herd management.

Dry off cows early. If a dairy farm is shipping over quota and has exhausted their list of cull cows, drying off cows one to two weeks early could help reduce total volume. Making this decision requires the dairy manager to work closely with their nutritionist to ensure that the energy profile of the dry cow ration does not cause excessive weight gain. Over-conditioned cows are at risk of several metabolic transition cow diseases that could jeopardize the success of the next lactation. The potential results include in+C35creased veterinary expenses, along with lost production. Balancing the diet to include a balanced amino acid profile, along with using additives that aid in preserving normal liver function, is a strategy worth considering.

Identify future forage quality risks. One big reason dairy farmers don’t like to cull cows is that, when they do, they sometimes experience forage feed changes and a production drop. As a result, they regret culling those open and low-production cows. Dairy owners and herdspersons should be working with nutrition companies that can recommend forage specialists who can provide infrared camera imaging of bunker silos and ag bags. Identifying potential spoilage “hot spots” can serve as a warning for wild yeast or mold growth. These storage molds can be stressed and create mycotoxins, which are invisible to the human eye. The growth of storage molds can also affect rumen function, leading to reduced fiber fermentation, reproduction challenges and production losses.

Knee-jerk reactions are never good. Working closely with your herd nutritionist or a reputable feed solutions company that provides on-farm support is a great way to help make the best management decisions for the future.

Brent Corrigan provides on-farm technical support for Alltech Canada in eastern and central Ontario, as well as the Huron Bay district. His dairy farm support services include rumen function assessments, bunk and TMR audits, and technical analytic data support.