I have spent the past 27 years in the dairy industry as a veterinarian and a dairy producer. At one time, I felt I had a commanding understanding of how a dairy farm should be operated. It was only when I became an owner that I learned to appreciate the diversity of management strategies and of the opportunities won or lost each day on-farm.

Our industry will challenge you to your limits — financially, physically, and most important mentally. During the last 12 to 15 months, I have found that my crystal ball can’t keep up with all of the changes happening today and that everything is up for evaluation.

Many new paradigms

Feed management has taken center stage on my farm. Record-high feed prices have forced us to evaluate the returns generated from each item we feed. Feed-formulation strategies that have been in place for years are under review and alternative programs with a potentially higher net return are being implemented. And, we now strive to feed a diet much closer to recommended requirements, with a more realistic expectation of milk yield as defined by our management and environment.

Our greatest opportunity is to produce more cost-effective forages from the land base we control. Triple-cropping has been the norm, and we are now looking to produce some corn for grain, too. This change will increase our efficiency. But we will also need to pay more attention to fertilizer requirements and better utilize manure nutrients to offset the high cost of purchased fertilizer for all of our crops.

Repairs for the dairy, employee housing, and equipment is another area receiving a thorough review. This has led us to evaluate our equipment and make decisions about the cost of replacement versus repair. Equipment repairs done on farm have been very cost-effective and reduced our downtime, but when repairs do not increase or maintain an item’s value, replacement may be the solution.

Labor cost is another area being explored. As positions become vacant, we have expanded the duties of existing employees and increased their wages. In some cases, we have found that it is more cost-effective to increase wages slightly for expanded duties than to maintain a separate person. And, unfortunately, the lack of a workable immigration policy still hangs over our industry.

Higher cattle prices and the inability to use rbST in our area have refocused our priorities. Cattle are just too expensive to be wasted! As a veterinarian, I generally took a more product and procedure approach to preventing animal-health issues. Now, I look more to hygiene, housing and environment, employee training, and grouping strategies to manage health issues and help reduce cull rates.

Looking forward           

I don’t feel defeated, only challenged by these changes. Many of you also have made changes as your circumstances and business plan have dictated. New and larger housing systems, radio-frequency identification systems, improved automation for milking systems, sexed semen, and methane digesters are just a few of the exciting and expensive technologies entering our industry.

It used to be the first thing I looked at when I arrived at the dairy was milk weights and hospital sheets from the previous night. But now, I find myself looking at the overnight trade results on the Chicago Board of Trade, the price of oil from the day before, and other international commodity reports.

It is a different game now. Just milking and feeding the cows is not enough. There is too much money to be made or lost through the decisions we make about operational inputs. My crystal ball has probably always been broken, but I did feel secure in the knowledge that I had some basic insights for what it took to run the dairy for the coming year. Maybe my crystal ball just needs some polish so that I can see all of the new and challenging opportunities that lie ahead.

This will be my last column for Dairy Herd Management. While I have really enjoyed doing this column, I have decided to hang up my writing hat for awhile and maybe find a little more time to go fishing.

Paul Johnson is a veterinarian and dairy producer in Climax, Ga.