Experience has shown that there is normally not just one area that is causing low milk production or performance. It is usually multifaceted, which makes it even more difficult to find and correct the problem. The other challenge is there may not be a cost effective immediate solution, which can be difficult to accept. There are some major steps in drilling down to the bottleneck(s) affecting performance.
Evaluating herd records is a good first step. Using DHIA or on farm data systems can help locate the potential problem areas. Examining peak milk, days in milk, performance by lactation number, grouping strategies, milk quality, reproduction, reasons for animal sold are just a few areas that can give indications of where or what the problem may be. Forage and TMR analysis reports are needed to make connections between nutrition and animal performance. The next action is a visual appraisal of the animals and feeds.
Animals never lie and thus they are the best indicators of what is really happening on farm. Also, answering the question of does the herd information match the visual appraisal of animals and feed can be extremely enlightening. Body condition scores by group, change in body condition over time, manure consistency, animal behavior including lying time, walking, interaction with people, access to water are just a few observations that can narrow down problem areas. Forage and feed assessment in and out of storage can determine how much they are factoring into the performance problems.
Feed management weighs heavily in evaluating low performance. Some common areas to check is ration consistency, frequency of feeding and ration push-ups, time away from feed, sorting, and particle size to name a few. To accurately assess what is happening may require checking feeding management practices at different times during a 24-hour period. Troubleshooting problems rarely has a one stop solution.
Dairying is a dynamic process so keep in perspective that what is observed one day may change tomorrow. This can challenge any troubleshooting endeavor and may explain why animals may not respond to recommended changes. Continual monitoring of herd data and management are necessary to confirm that practices have been properly implemented and are working.
A common scenario playing out this year is corn silage with diverse ranges in starch content, within farm and structure due to the erratic weather during the growing season. This has resulted in unexpected low performance, which is not necessarily the fault of the producer or nutritionist, but challenges associated with forage inconsistency. More frequent forage testing may not be enough to keep on top of the constant changes. In the short-term there may be limited solutions to this bottleneck. The best approach is to discuss how to minimize or manage the problem for the next growing season. Keeping expectations realistic can minimize frustrations when positive results are not immediately forthcoming.
Action plan for troubleshooting low milk production
Evaluate all pertinent information related to cows, feeds and management to determine possible bottlenecks to low performance. Develop a strategy to improve production and monitor key metrics over time to assess results.
- Step 1: Work with an advisory team to evaluate herd data and visually appraise all animals and feeds on the farm.
- Step 2: Conduct tests on feeds, rations, manure, or other items to validate the bottleneck(s) affecting animal performance.
- Step 3: Evaluate feeding management practices over time to confirm proper protocols are being followed.
- Step 4: Based on the findings, develop a plan to correct the problem area(s) affecting production.
- Step 5: Monitor key production metrics including income over feed cost.
Monitoring must include an economic component to determine if a management strategy is working or not. For the lactating cows income over feed costs is a good way to check that feed costs are in line for the level of milk production. Starting with July's milk price, income over feed costs was calculated using average intake and production for the last six years from the Penn State dairy herd. The ration contained 63% forage consisting of corn silage, haylage and hay. The concentrate portion included corn grain, candy meal, sugar, canola meal, roasted soybeans, Optigen (Alltech product) and a mineral vitamin mix. All market prices were used.
Also included are the feed costs for dry cows, springing heifers, pregnant heifers and growing heifers. The rations reflect what has been fed to these animal groups at the Penn State dairy herd. All market prices were used.
Income over feed cost using standardized rations and production data from the Penn State dairy herd
Note: January's Penn State milk price: $19.49/cwt; feed cost/cow: $6.12; average milk production: 85 lbs.
Feed cost/non-lactating animal/day