The discussion of how to improve dairy farm profitability starts with an evaluation of farm management. Proper management is even more important on the dairy farm than in beef production. Seasoned farmers know that expenses and potential profits tend to be higher on the dairy farm; therefore quality management and attention to detail are critical. A seemingly small detail can create a ripple effect that devastates the profitability of a farm for the entire year. Once farm operations are running smoothly, we can dive into the details of how to improve dairy farm profitability. In this article, we’ll discuss the problems dairy farms encounter in taking care of the primary producers of profit—animals. Prevention and treatment of disease will make your farm more profitable. Healthy animals produce in kind, giving you higher-quality product, and a higher quantity of it, compared with less efficient farms.
Poor health of your heifers, bulls, and calves equates to poor profits. Prevention and treatment of common diseases that affect your animals begins with an awareness of some of the most common issues, as well as knowing how to identify whether animals are suffering from them.
Mastitis is one of the most common diseases affecting dairy cattle today. It is also the most costly, causing up to $2 billion of losses to the U.S. dairy industry every year. This potentially fatal disease affects the udder tissue in cows. Bacteria from the milking machine or through hands and other materials such as bedding invade the animals’ teat canal, potentially causing gangrene of the tissue. This deadly disease disrupts synthesis of casein, causing poor quality milk that is unfit for consumption. To identify Mastitis, look for abnormalities in the animal’s udder: swelling, heat, redness, hardness, or pain. It can also be detected by looking at the animal’s milk. A watery appearance or flakes indicate infection. Treatment with antibiotics is typically recommended; however, milk from animals being treated with antibiotics should be siphoned off and discarded, since it is not consumable until all antibiotics have left the cow’s system.
Reproductive problems in dairy cows are another common health issue. This critical component of dairy farm profitability can also be very costly.
Cysts on one or both ovaries are a persistent cause of infertility in cows. They affect hormone levels and disrupt ovulation. Cysts can vary in size; some can even grow to the size of an orange. The presence of these cysts can cause nymphomania—a behavioral problem characterized as excessive sexual behavior and significant decrease in milk production. Predisposition to cysts through genetics is the primary cause of ovarian cysts in cows, however nutrition is also a factor. Stress during lactation can also cause cysts. They are commonly found during the fifth and sixth lactation, when milk yield is highest.
Another major issue affecting profitability of dairy farms is lameness. The majority of lameness involves the structure of the foot. Lameness is primarily caused by sole ulcers, white line disease, and foot rot. Left untreated, these three conditions can all result in a more serious, difficult to treat condition. The main thing to look for when identifying foot problems is swollen feet. This is not always easy to see and if any issues are suspected, the animal should be moved to solid, bare ground for thorough inspection. If there is a foul smell or the skin is oozing, this may indicate foot rot. Prompt veterinary attention is required to determine the severity of the problem.
In general, the highest risk for mortality for dairy cows is before weaning. Managing health and nutrition of breeding heifers and their calves is key. Respiratory and other immune system diseases can be prevented with proper nutrition, which also improves fertility. Feed efficiency is used to measure the ability of cows to turn nutrients from feed into milk and its related components. Optimum dry matter intake is important in maximizing the efficiency of each milk-producing cow. To improve feed efficiency and therefore dairy farm profitability, only high-quality forage should be used. Forage on pasture is one of the best sources of nutrition for dairy cattle. High-quality forage is a start, but unfortunately it is not enough. Farmers have less control over the quality of nutrients from pasture, and in many areas of the U.S. it is not possible to allow animals to graze outdoors in the winter. In addition, protein, fiber, and key minerals are not available in appropriate levels in most cases. Supplementation of these nutrients, especially minerals such as Calcium and Salt, are necessary to ensure efficient nutrient utilization and ultimately, proper health and milk production.
Quality drinking water is perhaps the most important component of proper herd health—and therefore profitability. Insufficient hydration can cause milk production to drop dramatically, causing profits to drop as well. Contamination can cause decreased water intake; dairy cows can detect contaminants and will drink less or refuse to drink the water at all. It may be necessary to get drinking water tested to determine whether it contains bacteria or other harmful chemicals, such as nitrates. Water can be tested by a laboratory, which can determine what contaminants are affecting the water and at what levels. Investing in reverse osmosis or another water treatment method may be worth it, considering the impact it has on farm profitability. A water treatment system will no doubt provide a great return on investment for the dairy operation over the long run.
The environment of the dairy cow is critical for maintaining productivity and health. Comfortable bedding improves cow comfort and lying time, in turn increasing its milk production and ultimately, the productivity of the farm. Proper bedding is also important in preventing infection. The best bedding for freestalls are deep sand, deep recycled manure solids, or solid and/or organic materials on top of mattresses. For compost bedded pack barns, dry sawdust, wheat straw dust, or a combination of wood chip fines, straw dust, and ground soybean straw are all good options. Inspection of bedding to ensure it is clean and dry will prevent bacteria from growing and causing infection.
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