Milk the cows. Feed the cows. Feed the calves. Pick the sires. Catch cows in heat. Breed cows. Deliver calves. Treat cows. Milk the cows…

The list of jobs requiring regular completion on any dairy is seemingly endless.  And, if you add in jobs for crop and field work, as do most of my clients, the workload can be overwhelming. Oftentimes, important jobs get lost by the wayside until perhaps a crisis occurs. Or, jobs get done sporadically, impacting herd production or performance.

On many small dairy farms, milking and feeding are the only tasks done on a regular basis. Since calves are not born each day and cows don’t need to be bred each day, these tasks are done “as needed.” When other responsibilities press in, and the “as-needed” tasks get overlooked, a limited number of cows or calves are affected. However, this changes as herd size increases.

Invest in a systems approach
Many dairies have grown from small to medium size. But, in many instances, the methods for organizing the work and accomplishing needed tasks — daily, weekly or monthly — have not really changed.

A good example is maintaining an effective and efficient breeding program. Even though 20 minutes of semi-casual observation may have been adequate to detect heats in a small herd, it will not detect many cows in heat in a larger herd. Even herds that have seen modest growth, and are not yet large, find that adopting a systematic approach pays off.

The area where I encourage producers to first implement a more systematic approach is in their reproductive program. They must first decide what reproductive management program they want to use and then set up routines to carry out the tasks.

For example, a producer who wants to use tail chalk and observation for heats will need to set up daily protocols to get cows bred. On the other hand, producers who want to use some sort of synchronization program (utilizing GnRH, prostaglandins and timed breeding) will set up weekly protocols. Either way, developing a systematic approach and training your employees on these protocols will help improve pregnancy rates, establish a more consistent flow of freshenings, and may be the first step in organizing your dairy more systematically.

Apply to all areas
Many areas of the dairy can benefit from systematic organization. Besides heat detection and breeding, here are a few other areas where systematic organization pays:

  • Implementing a vaccination program.
  • Handling and processing new calves.
  • Measuring and adjusting feed weights.
  • Observing fresh cows.

  The key is to develop a system that allows you to accomplish the necessary tasks in a timely and consistent manner. This is often easier to accomplish on larger dairies where there is more division of labor and specialization.

Many dairy producers who have a cropping enterprise love their jobs because there is so much variety. But, it also can make them reluctant to impose strict routines on their work.

Organizing work, particularly as dairies grow in size, requires routines…. Routines to get cows pregnant; routines to provide consistent vaccinations; routines to process and care for cattle as you move them; the list goes on. Doing the essential tasks of a dairy systematically is one of the most challenging adjustments for mid-size dairies. But when they achieve it, the rewards are significant. 

Brian Gerloff is a veterinarian and operates Seneca Bovine Service in Marengo, Ill.