For years, dairy producers and researchers have focused on how to get cows through the transition period and off to a healthy lactation. And while many improvements have been made, University of Minnesota research shows that nearly one-fourth of all cows that leave the herd do so within the first 60 days in milk.

The simple truth is that not all cows graduate the fresh-cow pen with high marks, explains David Rhoda, veterinarian in Evansville, Wis. Some graduate with a “C” or “D.” They all enter the lactating herd, and the cows that receive a marginal grade tend to become invisible until they get sick or leave the herd.

You can change that. You can take more control over when cows leave. But it takes a commitment of time and a change in mind-set to keep track of individual cows, learn what caused them to fail before they leave, and then apply what you have learned to prevent the problem from happening again. Work toward making each culling decision an economic decision.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin now say a turnover rate in the first 60 days of milk of 6 percent is an achievable goal. (Turnover rate = number of cows that leave/average number of cows in the herd over a given period of time x 100.) That means you can reduce cow losses in the first 60 days in milk.

Broken cows

Intensive fresh-cow programs have helped some producers minimize cow losses during this critical period. But that program by itself cannot prevent broken cows. It’s the overall management and care of cows throughout their lifetime that’s important. Sufficient bunk space, cow comfort, attention to cow movements, vaccination programs, nutrition, health, and proper body condition are a few of the building blocks that must be in place for a successful lactation.

You can gain further control by knowing when and why your cows leave the herd. 

Take, for example, two large dairies each with an annual cull rate of 35.2 percent. In Herd 1, the number of cows that leave the herd in the first 60 days in milk is 24 percent; in Herd 2, it is 35.9 percent. Yet, both have the same annual cull rate.

In many cases, losing cows on the front side of their new lactation is an involuntary act, explains Mark Kirkpatrick, tech-services veterinarian with Pfizer Animal Health in Kuna, Idaho. These cows represent a significant loss to the dairy, and reduce its ability to remove the individual cows that really should leave. Without knowing why, it’s difficult to gain a true picture of what’s going on in the herd.

Not all early-lactation culls are equal, and economics do affect culling decisions. That’s why you must be careful when comparing early-lactation culls between different herds and over time within a herd, explains Steve Stewart, dairy consultant with Valley Ag Software. For example, if cash-flow is tight or replacements are not readily available, dairies may be forced to keep cows that did not transition well and have limited future potential. In this scenario, the early-lactation cull rate may be too low, as the best decision for profitability would have been to replace the animal. On the flip side, if milk prices are high and cash-flow is good, producers may be more inclined to replace the more-marginal cows with better ones. This is a good economic decision, even though it does raise the early-lactation cull rate. The other factor than comes into play is the value of a heifer calf. When calf prices are high, some producers may keep a cow long enough to have the heifer calf, yet sell the cow in early lactation.

That’s why it’s so important to understand both when and why cows leave. When you strive to identify why cows leave, you can collate that information into herd patterns, which can help you reduce the number of cows that leave because they are broken.

Most expensive culls

“The last thing any producer wants to lose is a first-calf heifer in early lactation,” says Kirkpatrick, “She is your most expensive cull.”

That’s because she doesn’t pay for the cost of rearing her (or her purchase price) until about two-thirds of the way through her first lactation. And she really doesn’t start contributing much to the economic bottom-line until her second lactation.

Any cow lost in the first 60 days in milk is an expensive cull. First and foremost, you lose that lactation. For a cow giving 20,000 pounds of milk, that’s a loss of about $3,080 (20,000 pounds – 4,600 pounds in early lactation = 15,400 pounds of lost milk x $20/cwt = $3,080).

Add in the cost of a heifer replacement at $2,000 or more, depending on where you live. If the cow replaced sells as a commercial-utility cow, that’s about $850 (1,700 pounds x 50 cents per pound).  That’s a difference of $1,150.

However, if the cow culled has a body-condition score of 2.0 or less, it will be classified as a canner cutter, and you’ll get about 7 to 10 cents per pound less, explains Mike Baker, extension beef specialist at Cornell University. That’s a loss $119 to $170 per cow. But, on the bright side, if the cow culled is less than five years of age and has a body condition score of 3.0 to 3.5, it may be graded as a “white cow.” This is a term used to describe young cows that still have white fat as opposed to yellow fat. Since these cows produce a uniform ribeye with white fat that is in demand by economy steakhouses, you can earn a premium of 5 to 12 cents per pound, depending on the market. That’s an additional $85 to $204 on that 1,700-pound cull cow. So, it’s in your best interest for cull cows to leave the farm in good body condition, stresses Baker. When you take control of when cows leave, it allows you to capture more of this additional money instead of taking deducts on cows you had no choice but to cull.  

An achievable goal

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin collected herd-removal data — culled and death — from 113 Wisconsin herds with DairyComp 305 records ranging in size from 29 to 3,334 cows. Annual turnover rates ranged from 12 percent to 60 percent. But the turnover rate within the first 60 days in milk ranged from 0 to 31 percent, with the average turnover rate being 12 percent.

And, if you look at what the top 20 percent of Wisconsin herds achieve, you find turnover rates during the first 60 days in milk average 9 percent in large herds (more than 500 cows), and 6 percent in small herds (100 or less cows), says Nigel Cook, veterinarian at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “A 6 percent turnover rate within the first 60 days in milk is an achievable goal,” he says. (This does not include cows sold for milk production.)

Consider the ramifications. In a 1,000-cow dairy, with a turnover rate of 12 percent in the first 60 days in milk, that equates to 120 cows lost. When you reduce your turnover rate to 6 percent, you reduce cow losses by 60.

A matter of pride

Dairy producers take a lot of pride in what they do. And cows lost in early lactation are a nagging irritation. 

“When one of our animals leaves in her prime, it is a clear indication that we failed,” says Rhoda.

Producers must move from being bugged about it, and accepting the loss as normal, to taking action. Once producers make that change, they can take control of the situation and learn to minimize losses.

Those that have been successful at reducing early-lactation losses have developed a separate management plan to address these cows. This plan allows them to learn from individual cows what caused them to break before they leave the herd and become a statistic. Learning the real reason why cows leave — not the last recorded reason, which may be incorrect — allows you to identify herd-level problems and work back upstream to fix those problems and reduce the number of cows that break in the future.

Take, for example, one Wisconsin dairy that wanted to change the percentage of cows that left in early lactation. Rhoda helped the dairy put a management plan in place to keep track of the cows that graduated from the fresh-cow pen with a marginal grade, and to learn from them before they left. Over the next four years, they were able to slowly reduce the percent of cows that were culled or died during the first 60 days in milk from 25 percent to just 6 percent.

“There were no big ‘ah ha’ moments where we went ‘this is the cause of all of our problems,’” says Rhoda. Instead, it was constant pressure to identify problems and address each as it was discovered, which has made a big difference for the cows.

The loss of early-lactation animals also represents a potential customer-relations problem. Producers strive to be good caregivers of their animals. But to someone outside the industry, having nearly one-forth of all animals that leave the herd do so in early lactation could be considered a sign of poor animal welfare.

“When you are there everyday and things don’t change, that high early-lactation cull rate can be accepted as normal,” says Kirkpatrick. “But when I get to see an operation that is firing on all cylinders  — the cows freshen well, look good, eat well, have good udder bloom, a shiny coat and their ears are up — then those other herds don’t look so good in comparison.”

It also shows that the goal of a 6 percent turnover rate in early lactation is achievable. And your cows deserve your best efforts.

Why you need a separate management plan

Traditionally, when cows leave the fresh-cow pen — and the monitoring programs in place — they enter the lactating herd and become invisible. You don’t see them again unless they become ill, die, or are culled. 

The problem with this management plan is that you miss the opportunity to learn from these cows the real reason why they have struggled, says David Rhoda, veterinarian in Evansville, Wis. And the final remark entered into the records for why a cow left often does not reflect how she got there.

For example, if a cow had a displaced abomasum at 10 days in milk, mastitis at 100 days in milk, and at 250 days in milk is culled because she is open, her record will probably say she was culled for “reproductive failure.” Is that the true reason why she was culled, or is there something in her medical history that would reveal a different cause?

If you want to discover the real reasons why cows leave your herd, and work upstream to fix those problems in order to minimize early-lactation cow departures, you have to adopt a separate management plan for cows who graduate the fresh-cow pen with a “C” or “D” grade.