Maintaining and improving dairy profitability is a continual challenge in today’s landscape. However, technological advances are allowing dairy farmers to reflect on how things were done in the past and improve efficiencies, increase revenue, or cut expenses in the application of new technologies. Many of these new technologies provide a multitude of data points, providing the foundation for dairy farmers, nutritionists and veterinarians to measure the impact of change on a single herd. Combining this data across a larger population of dairy cows, we begin to spot trends, capturing a bigger picture across a larger cross section of the dairy industry using actual data. For example, there has been a lot of talk about the increased use of beef semen, cross breeding, and increased cull rates. But what are we seeing in the data? How are new technologies impacting the way farmers are making decisions? Below are some trends AgSource Dairy has spotted across 3,200 dairy farms and 700,000 cows since 2015.
Breeding decisions are changing. Figures 1 and 2 reflect the change in types of semen that has been used to breed Holstein and Jersey cows and heifers in the past four years. Figure 1 shows clearly that the use of conventional semen in Holsteins has decreased since 2015 and has been replaced by sorted semen and beef semen. At the start of 2019, sorted semen was used 16% of the breedings, and beef semen was used on another 16% of the breedings.
On the Jersey side, changes are less pronounced. The use of sorted semen has remained steady at around 41% while breeding with beef semen has shown a slight increase, leveling off at approximately 15% going into 2019.
Another trend that was observed were the number of milking cows not bred after calving and were culled at some point in the lactation. The group that was culled less than 70 days in milk, and not bred, grew from 3.6% in 2015 to 9.9% in 2018. Numbers for 2019 are already exceeding those from 2018. Cows that were culled after 70 days in milk, and not bred, was 6.8% in 2015 and stayed fairly constant at 7% in 2018. When combined, it points to fewer cows being presented for breeding after calving.
The use of embryo transfer technology has showed a slight increase over the past four years, and in 2018, calves reported as a result of embryo transfer represented 1% of all female calves.
Breeding performance also changed from 2015 to 2017. Table 1 shows the average days to first breeding, days open and number of services by lactation and calving year. First reported breedings are taking place earlier by about 4 days, and average days open has decreased by almost 10 days in a 3-year time span. Although 2018 data is still incomplete, early indications are that days open will decrease even further. Rapid decrease in days open could be a combination of fewer cows being bred multiple times and culled earlier in lactation, and improved breeding techniques.
Table 1: Breeding Performance by Year of Calving and Lactation
*Breeding data for cows that calved late 2018 are incomplete as of this date
Based on the trends observed, dairy farmers have started breeding cows earlier, reduced days open and increased the use of sorted semen – generating more replacement animals. They are also electing to breed more animals using beef semen over conventional dairy semen, while an increased cull rate on early lactation cows has led to fewer cows being bred overall.
Replacements and Sales
Based on the AgSource breeding data, it’s clear that the decision process regarding which cows to breed and what type of semen is used has changed significantly in just 4 years. But so have decisions regarding the number of replacement animals that are kept, and when and which cows are sold. Using approximately 350,000 AgSource annual female calf records, the data in Table 2 shows that while calf losses in the first 60 days have remained fairly constant since 2015, when you include sales of calves, the number of female calves that died or left the herd increased to 5% in 2018. If you widen the window to calves and heifers that left within 300 days from birth, the number goes up to 10.8% in 2017. When including heifers post-breeding the number goes up to 15.4% which is 5% higher than 2 years prior. Early indications are that 2018 numbers for heifers sold or died less than 300 or 600 days will be greater than 2017 as the year-to-date number has already exceeded that of 2017.
Table 2: Calf and Heifer Replacement Losses and Sales by Year of Birth
Based on this data, there is a growing trend to sell more heifers prior to making it to the milking herd. The use of genomic testing is allowing dairy farmers to determine with increased accuracy which replacement animals are the higher genetic merit animals, basing breeding and culling decisions upon those results.
Table 3 shows sales and losses for the milking herd based on calving year and lactation number. There is a growing trend for animals to be culled in early lactation. Most striking are first lactation cows. The number leaving the herd less than 60 days in milk has increased from 4.8% to 8.1% in 2018. Overall culling rates less than 305 days in milk follow this same trend.
Table 3: Sales and Losses of Milking Cows by Calving Year and Lactation Numbe
This culling data concludes animals are more quickly disposed of to keep treatment expenses and feeding costs down.
Production and Udder Health
Using over 6 million annual test day observations, the average number of lactations in the herd has stayed steady at 2.2, however, average days in milk is declining. Holsteins went from 177 in 2015, to 171 in 2018 and 171 to 166, respectively, for Jerseys. Figures 3 and 4 show the production trends recorded from 2015 through 2018. Taking into account the scaling, Holstein production has remained stable at around 82 lbs. of milk, but the fat % in the milk has slightly increased to 3.9%. Jersey production showed a slight decrease while fat % stayed about the same at 4.9%. Protein % for both Holsteins and Jerseys remain unchanged.
Although production numbers have not changed, components have slightly increased and overall udder health has continued to show an improvement in the past 2 years. Graph 5 shows the improvement that was made in SCC since 2015. These improvements could be a function of higher culling rates of infected cows saving treatment expenses and loss of milk, coupled with better overall udder health management.
Analyzing several key management areas using AgSource data from the past 4 years show that the biggest improvements took place in getting cows bred earlier, while improved udder health was achieved by lowering Somatic Cell Count. The use of genomic data coupled with heavier use of sexed semen has allowed dairy farmers to cull unprofitable cows faster, reducing expenses related to breeding, treatments and feeding. By having more replacements available, farmers have started using more beef semen to generate dairy-beef cross calves that can potentially generate greater value at the time of sale. On the production side, the amount of milk produced per cow has not increased significantly, but the trend to increase fat % is starting to show. Nutritional advances and greater attention to the composition of overall fat (fatty acids) could point at continued increases in overall fat content of milk.
Today’s economic realities have pushed dairy farmers to find new and innovative solutions to improve their bottom line. New technologies have opened doors previously considered closed as inventory management has become a key driver in optimizing economic returns.
In order to make informed decisions, it is key that dairy farmers have access to complete and accurate information. With more data being generated from milking robots, sensor technology, milk diagnostics, and genomic information, connecting all the dots is key for the future of dairy information management. Predictive models that incorporate multiple sources of data will allow dairy farmers to generate “what-if” scenarios, looking at the potential outcomes, and deciding which one will provide for the best choice given the information available.
Working together with other industry partners, AgSource seeks to be at the forefront of dairy information management. It is our goal to continue to provide new diagnostics, connect various data sources and provide management decision tools that will allow dairy farmers, nutritionists, veterinarians, and beyond to make the best informed short- and long-term decisions.