If you can measure it you can manage it

A dairy farm is a complex system. There are many areas to manage in order to secure profitability, and few farms can be profitable without balancing milk production, feeding, animal health and reproduction. Research and personal experience show that measurement and proactive herd management in all these areas is critical to ensure the optimal performance of the herd and to achieve high economic returns. There is technology available that makes it possible for professional farmers to measure, manage and optimise the performance of each individual cow in the key areas of feeding, animal health and reproduction.

Dairy farms are under a lot of pressure to remain profitable. Feed prices and milk prices fluctuate, and it becomes increasingly important to utilise resources efficiently; labour, land, cattle and environmental resources.

Good farm management becomes crucial, and it also becomes important to think outside the box. What you did yesterday and what your father and grandfather did may not secure your business for the future. You might need to change the way you manage your farm. Today, farms need to be run as a business, and therefore we need to use business methodology, with Key Performance Indicators, Standard Operation Procedures and Personnel management as tools.

The profit is in the details, so we need to look at the details to secure that we are doing the right things, that we have the right practices on our farms. And this is an ongoing, never-ending task.

Proactive herd management

Research and personal experience show that measurement and proactive herd management is critical to ensure the optimal performance of the herd and to achieve high economic returns. So what do we mean by proactive herd management? Two main components will be discussed here: technology to capture and analyze individual animal data and monitor overall herd performance; and a professional farmer who wants to be proactive.

Herd management systems consist of hardware and software. The data collected by the hardware (e.g. sensors) should be accurate and the collection process automated. The software should enable the farmer to make the right decisions (e.g. after analysis by algorithms and bio models) at the right time.

We need herd management systems that collect the right information and enable farmers to utilise the information in the right way. In this presentation we will share examples of how decisions can be made easier by advanced technology.

Analysing your feeding performance

On average around the world, the cost of feed represents 50% of the daily running costs. On an average farm, with a gross margin of ten percent, if feed costs are reduced by 10 %, the profitability will increase dramatically, by 50%.

Slide 1: Feed and profitability

I am from Israel, and I was born on a dairy farm and in our case feed cost run as high as 60 and 70% of our running costs, due to the need to import a lot of the grain. In other regions, like Brazil and Argentina, a lot of farmers are going from pasture-based to confined systems, and this shift happens in other places around the world as well. Feeding management therefore becomes an increasingly important tool to reduce feed cost.

Feeding management

Rations need to be planned, feed needs to be mixed and delivered, automatically or by hand. Then it needs to be consumed by the cow and digested. Cow comfort plays an important role at this stage, as the cows produce milk while they rest, and if the barn is well designed they will produce more milk.

But in too many cases there is a deviation between what was planned and what was actually consumed by the cow. It costs a lot to grow these crops, to bring it to the farm, to process it and deliver it. How can we guarantee performance? It is a big task. We can train our staff to be more accurate, but unfortunately at the time we measure we will be reactive on the accuracy. If we check today what was done yesterday and try to fix it today or tomorrow it will in many cases be too late.

If we can integrate automation to our feeding system, we can secure first of all consistency. Any ruminant nutritionist will say that consistency is one of the most important parts of the feeding management system, having the cow consume the same feed every day. Secondly, loading needs to be accurate, if you use TMR, or if you feed you cows in another way.

Thirdly, you can increase the feeding frequency. To keep the rumen pH-balanced, the cow needs to be fed as many times per day as possible, in a consistent way.

All those challenges can be dealt with by integrating automation into the system. There is a system in place already working in Europe called the Optimat feeding system, where all the feeds are loaded, mixed and delivered to the cows automatically. Everything is measured, and there is also another tool being developed that will measure all ingredients online, checking all the nutritional values of the feeds so that the rations can be adjusted in real time.

Slide 2: Optimat feeding system

Dry matter variation changes the calculated ration

Dry matter variation can affect the rumen, the production, the animal health and the feed cost, and this shows why it is important to know the values of the feeds. Many farmers think that the dry matter they measured three or six months ago, the value that they put in the ration matrix, will work for the rest of the year. But if we measure dry matter in a bunker, we can find variations, and if what you are feeding your cows is not correct, your feeding plan will not become reality.

If the dry matter changes it affects the cows in many ways. There will be a change in forage:concentrate ratio, there will be a change in fiber intake - some times more sometimes less, it can change the whole dry matter intake as well as the health potential, the production potential and the cost of the ration.

Any experienced dairy farmer can tell you that in a year with bad silage, you suffer the whole year, not only from issues with production, nutrition, reproduction and health related to forage quality, it affects the whole system of your production. Still, not all farmers check their dry matter.

Slide 3: Variation in dry matter

Larry Chase at Cornell University made a study that shows what difference it makes if you measure your dry matter once a month or once a day. In a 1000 cow herd, if dry matter for both corn silage and alfalfa silage varies, the potential savings are 44 530 USD. And when it comes to the quality of the fiber, you can save 18 980 USD per year.

Ration balancing

Slide 4: Ration balancing

By these savings your profitability will increase, and it will make your business more sustainable. You can measure your dry matter by sending it to a lab, or even by using a microwave.

But the cows don’t read the lab report, so what is important for them? They need a balanced diet, it has to palatable, pleasant to eat, it needs to be consistent and of high quality, nutritious and free from toxic compounds like molds and yeasts

Animal health and comfort

If we look at animal welfare, and the health of the cow, it is all related to the environment they live in, and again what is important here, is that what you can measure you can manage.

The life of a cow runs in a cycle, lactation by lactation, and we want our cows to stay as many years as possible in our herd. Longevity is very important for the success of the dairy, since you grow the heifer for two years with no production, investing in your future.

We expect a lot of our cows: to give us a healthy calf, to peak her production at the right time, and then to get pregnant again, all in a short time. With all the stress on the cows from calving, moving from group to group etc, this period needs to be managed, on a daily basis, on every farm size, from one cow to 50 000 cows, the same approach.

We can avoid a lot of the problems that can arise, like milk fever, retained placenta, body condition loss, mastitis, ketosis, fatty liver, displaced abomasums and metritis. But if we don’t manage this we will lose a lot on profitability. And prevention is the best treatment.

Slide 5: Critical days

There is a system used on farm called Herd Navigator, which monitors what is going on in the cow’s body. It focuses on three areas:

1) Reproduction: The system analyses the progesterone in the milk, detecting heat or silent heat, likelihood of success at insemination, pregnancy, abortion, cysts and anoestrus.

2) Udder health: Analyses the LDH - lactate dehydrogenase - in the milk, detecting mastitis, and subclinical mastitis

3) Feeding and energy: Analyses urea and BHB – betahydroxybutyrate – in the milk, measuring feed ration and protein, detecting ketosis, subclinical ketosis and secondary metabolic disorders.

A milk sample is taken from the cow in the parlour or in the AMS, the sample is analysed, the data processed and the result then shows up on the user interface. A bio model sends feed back to the system, for next sample decision.

Slide 6: Bio-model

The bio model is integrated with the herd management system, and it rises red flags when there is a risk for diseases, it gives reproduction status and it decides the date for next sample. You don’t want to measure all cows everyday for everything, so the bio model will calculate when to measure. This is all done automatically, online, in real time.

This is what a ketosis red flag would look like. The cow is suffering from a high level of BHB, and in addition to a red flag, there is a SOP connected to it, a procedure of what to do with the cow.

Slide 7: Ketosis alarm

This is what a mastitis alarm looks like.

Slide 8: Mastitis alarm

The monitor board presents an overview of cow status, a list of treatment and things to do today to prevent sickness. And that is the key: prevention is better than treatment.

Slide 9: Monitor board

There is technology available, today, that makes it possible for professional farmers to measure, manage and optimise the performance of each individual cow in the key areas of feeding, animal health and reproduction.


Lior Yaron

Lior Yaron
3 articles

Director Global Customer Project Support, DeLaval Intl, Sweden

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