Management troubleshooting

Profitable dairy producers have a keen ability to identify problems or opportunities and then, based on past experience and judgement, identify solutions. Record keeping and analysis tools help producers to achieve intense individual cow management even with large numbers of cows. Costs versus benefits must be estimated both before and during usage of a new technology.

Profitable dairy producers have a keen ability to identify problems or opportunities and then, based on past experience and judgement, identify solutions. Primary goals of dairy producers include: reduced labor and other input costs combined with improved cow performance and health. The end result is greater efficiency. In order to achieve management success, especially on today’s large dairy, adequate but timely information for decision-making is needed.

Record keeping and analysis tools help producers to achieve intense individual cow management even with large numbers of cows. Unfortunately, many producers purchase record systems but do not use them to their greatest potential, limiting the amount of information used for decision-making. For optimum management, records systems must be properly used to evaluate cow performance and economics before and after a management change.

Costs versus benefits must be estimated both before and during usage of a new technology. Areas of technology include: housing and building design, milking systems, electronic identification systems, reproductive aides (such as pedometers and heat synchronization), and metabolic aides (such as bovine somatotropin). As new technologies are developed, their potential economic impact must be assessed. That information must be accurately applied to individual farm situations using computerized models so that the farm manager can make the best decisions possible.

When troubleshooting or identifying opportunity areas on farms, the advisor should first conduct records analysis to determine the weak links in the operation, then establish management strategies to address those issues based on economic analysis, and then, after implementation, return to do another records analysis to assess the impact of the change.

Records Analysis

Summarization of herd and individual cow records is a valuable tool for defining opportunity areas on any farm. Before beginning records analysis, it is important to first make sure the records are complete and accurate. Otherwise, wrong information will lead to wrong decisions. In addition, it is important to not only look at averages but also variation from the average. Averages may obscure a problem, especially in a large herd or inaccurately identify problems, especially in a small herd. When evaluating records, it is important not only to determine the weak links but also to prioritize according to the influence of each one on milk sales and herd health. Focus first on those areas that are highest in priority rather than focusing on all of the farm’s weak areas at once.

Some key measures to evaluate include:

Peak milk yield – Evaluate peak milk yield by lactation (first, second, and third & greater). Examples of situations which might be found include: first lactation performance is below expected performance (perhaps due to a poor heifer growing program) or second lactation cows are performing better than expected in relation to the older animals (perhaps due to poor culling decisions or too many metabolic problems). It is also important to look for seasonal effects on peak milk yield. For example, problems caused by heat stress.

To identify the cause of poor peak milk yield, evaluate late dry and early fresh cow management, housing, and nutrition. In order to achieve optimum peaks, cows must freshen with few metabolic problems and eat well during the first 30 days in milk.

Normal Pounds of Peak Milk Production

Rolling Herd Average (lbs/year)
1st Lactation 2nd Lactation
3rd Lactation
56 71 77
61 78 85
67  86 93
71 94 101
102 109

Adapted from Elrod, 1995

Persistency – There is a normal rate of decline in milk production following peak milk yield. A higher than normal rate of decline is known as poor persistency. Under feeding energy in early lactation, causes body condition loss and poor persistency.

Additional measurements to monitor include; Average Days in Milk, Average Milk Production, 150-Day Standardized Milk, Income over Feed Cost, % of Milk Check for Grain, Somatic Cell Count, Milk Protein (%), Milk Fat (%), and MUN.

Reproductive performance measures should be evaluated. Calving interval is directly related to average days in milk, effecting daily milk sales. Calving interval is, in turn, affected by breedings per conception and average days to first service. Other reproductive measures to monitor include; culling rate, days dry, calving schedule, and age and size of heifers at calving.

Compare the above measures to averages for herds that have already met your goals for production and profitability. Also compare past performance measures to current performance measures to determine if some measures have been undergoing an improvement process or have gradually become a problem. Peak milk yield, persistency, days open, days dry, somatic cell count and culling rate have the greatest influence on milk sales.

Grouping Decisions

The management troubleshooter needs to determine if the producer is making best use of his current facilities with the current grouping scheme. There may be situations where simple changes in grouping will cost little or no money, but may significantly improve the farm’s bottom line.

Some farms don’t group cows by any criteria, yet they have 2 or 3 different pens of milking cows. By grouping cows according to production or stage of lactation, they may be able to increase milk production simply by adding a high cow feed (4-6 pounds (2-3 kg) into the mixer wagon after feeding a lower production mix out to the other groups but before feeding the high group. (Note: when doing this, pay attention to possible problems with particle size reduction) This would require little extra labor but has the potential to significantly increase income. Feed costs could be reduced for lower producing, late lactation cows through grouping management.

Grouping first-calf heifers separately from older animals can increase their milk production by 5-10% because of reduced social problems. This is especially true if the first-calf heifers are small. But, as heifer nutrition and management are improved and first-calf heifers calve in closer to mature size, this benefit of a heifer group is reduced. With large heifers, it may be more profitable to use the pen as a fresh cow group or another production group rather than as a heifer group.

Some farms like to group their cows based on milking speed. Equal milking times for all cows in a milking group may reduce labor and parlor costs.

Cow Comfort

Cows need to be comfortable to achieve maximum production. When management troubleshooting, evaluate the environment that the cows live in, keeping in mind the conclusions from the records analysis. For example, improper stall dimensions can result in laminitis and other foot and leg problems. This may reduce peaks and persistency. You may decide that the producer should spend his next dollar on improving cow comfort rather than making a radical change in the nutrition program.

1. Stalls – Measure dimensions and compare to recommendations. Watch cows get up and down in the stalls. Is it easy and natural for them? Look for “strawberry” lesions on cows’ hocks from abrasion usually caused by stall beds with inadequate bedding. If you have to get more than 4-5 cows up before milking, you may have a cow comfort problem. If 10-15% of the cows are standing at 2 h after eating, there may be a cow comfort problem.

2. Air Quality – Evaluate temperature and humidity

3. Walking Surface – Watch cows move around the barn. Can the walking surface be improved? Grooves should be 4” (10 cm) wide, ¾” (2 cm) wide, ¾” (2 cm) deep.

4. Flies can be a problem especially if they bite cows. In freestalls or pastures, cows will bunch together to defend themselves against flies. This can lead to slug-feeding and acidosis problems.

(See Cow Comfort)


During the management troubleshooting process, the hours and intensity of light on the cows should be evaluated. Astudy by Michigan State University was conducted with 13 herds in Michigan. It showed that dairy cows exposed to 16 hours of fluorescent lighting per day during the fall and winter months produce 7 to 10% more milk than cows exposed to normal amounts (9-12 hours) of light. Intake was not measured in this study but in similar studies, intake increased by 6%. It is critical for the response that cows have a dark period. Cows under continuous light have a similar reaction as cows that don’t have enough light.

How to do it:

  • Use rapid-start, dust and moisture-resistant, high-output fixtures
  • A minimum of 20-30 footcandles is recommended. This would be enough to read by.
  • Place fixtures at the rate of one for every four cows, 7 to 10 feet above the cows’ heads in a stanchion or tie-stall barn
  • Place six 8-foot fluorescent light fixtures per 50 freestalls over the alley between two rows of stalls in a freestall barn
  • Use a timer to insure proper timing and save on labor.

(See Lighting)


In the early 1980’s, there was a documented case of salmonellosis in a large New York dairy. The salmonellosis was found in the haylage and in bird droppings. Starlings also eat 1.5 times their body weight per day in feed! Some ideas for getting rid of birds include: using netting and doors to exclude birds, hanging large balls with predator-like eyes, plastic owls and/orscreeching sounds, dogs, and Starlicide where legal (a lethal drug for starlings)

Milking Efficiency

For maximum production, cows must have access to feed and have time to lay down to chew their cud. For this reason, it is generally recommended that cows not spend more than one hour per milking waiting in the holding area and being milked. Proper parlor sizing and holding area sizing are therefore important. Labor efficiency is also dependent on milking efficiency. Evaluate milker routines, compare milking times with industry averages and optimums, and determine if steps can be taken to improve milker performance and parlor throughput.


Chase, L.E. and C.J. Sniffen. Problem Solving Techniques in Dairy Cattle Nutrition.

Elrod, C. 1995. Production records and management. AgFocus. October 1995.

Spain, J. 1998. Making Effective Use of Production Management Records.

Stanisiewski, E.P. and H.A. Tucker. 1986. Supplemental light increases milk yield in Michigan dairy herds. Extension Bulletin E-2013, Michigan State University, November 1986.

Related Links:

Guess What May Be Eating Your Lunch: The Hidden Costs of Cull Rate, Part 1.
M.J. Hoekema, University of Florida

Guess What May Be Eating Your Lunch: The Hidden Costs of Cull Rate, Part 2.
M.J. Hoekema, University of Florida


Mary Beth de Ondarza

Mary Beth de Ondarza
45 articles

Nutritional consultant for the dairy feed industry at Paradox Nutrition, LLC.

Look to Paradox Nutrition, LLC for providing:

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Dr. de Ondarza received her Ph. D. from Michigan State University and her Masters Degree from Cornell University, both in the field of Dairy Nutrition.

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Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition

Paradox Nutrition, LLC is a nutritional consultation business for the dairy feed industry. Mary Beth de Ondarza, Ph.D. is the sole proprietor.

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