In a 2007 report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) entitled, “Profits, Costs, and the Changing Structure of Dairy Farming” (ERS Report No. 47, September 2007), agriculture economists found “... smaller dairy farms (less than 500 cows) mostly incur economic losses—the value of their production does not exceed full costs, including the costs of capital and time committed by their owners.”  Much of this shortfall identified by the authors could be attributed to lower labor efficiency on dairies with fewer than 500 cows, especially on the dairies with fewer than 200 cows where family labor is the mainstay of the farm labor force.  How can our small family-run dairies improve labor efficiency?

For years, the answer most dairymen have looked to was more milk per cow.  Unfortunately, the pursuit of high milk per cow has not always led to greater efficiency.  Starting in the 1990’s, some dairies found success in imitating the New Zealand model of seasonal grass-based dairying.  Grass-based dairying is now a well-established sector of the U.S. dairy industry and most of the analysis of these systems has focused on the lower capital investment, paddock lay-out, and forages.  Perhaps we have missed the point as to why grass-dairying has been successful.  Perhaps the dairy industry needs to look at the labor efficiencies seasonal dairies are capturing and see if similar efficiencies could be captured in what we have come to term ‘conventional’ dairies that rely on conserved forages and total mixed rations.

Seasonal grass-based dairies demand the cows stay strictly on a 12-month calving interval, attempting to get a high percentage of the total herd to calve in a narrow window of time in the early spring.  Having all the cows grouped tightly allows the seasonal dairy to focus its efforts on just one point of a 12-month cycle and manage animals in larger groups.  Seasonal grass dairies typically milk significantly more cows per man and while this has often been attributed to the swing-parlor designs or lower milk yields per cow, the high cow-to-worker ratio is probably more a function of how the dairyman is better able to compartmentalize tasks.  Instead of dealing with calf care, heat detection, breeding, and nutritional management 365 days of the year, critical tasks are conquered in specific blocks of time.  When young calves need attention during that first three weeks of life, the dairyman does not have to be worried with heat detection or breeding.  By breeding season, the calves are weaned.  Perhaps most significantly, when cows are dried-off, all the cows are dried-off together and the dairyman experiences something unheard-of on conventional U.S. dairies:  down-time with no milking!  I suggest that an annual 45 to 60-day break in the daily grind of milking could make a very positive difference in the long-run performance and happiness of the small family-operated dairy.

What if our small family-run ‘conventional’ dairies transitioned their herds to a 12-month calving interval?  What if the dairy that has the infrastructure to feed exclusively conserved forages calved in the early fall and dried-off the entire herd in July and August when summer temperatures typically depress milk yields anyway?  Perhaps a 12-month calving interval could allow the small family dairy to capture efficiencies critical to its sustainability.

Some of the obstacles to this system include the potential costs associated with transitioning the herd to a calving season of 60 days or less and the interruption in cash flow a seasonal dairy experience.  Furthermore, it is not known if milk production per cow would decline in the course of altering herd genetics to meet a 12-month calving interval and, if so, by how much?  If these issues can be addressed, the question remains can the small family dairy take advantage of the labor efficiency gains either by effectively reducing the amount of hired labor, employing excess family labor elsewhere, or expand production to fully capture the gains in labor efficiency?  To address all the challenges outlined here are beyond the scope of this one article but suffice it to say the dairy industry is already hard at work to improve reproductive efficiency, and we also have the experience of the grass-based seasonal dairies to provide some guidance on management of animals and cash flows.   

There are many possible situations where a strict 12-month calving interval is not a good fit or is not achievable but the aforementioned 2007 ERS publication forecasts a continued steady decline in the number of dairy businesses operating with less than 200 cows due to the inefficiencies described in the report.  It is my belief the benefits to labor efficiency and family lifestyle make the fall calving seasonal dairy an attractive option for small family-operated dairies and could be a path to being more competitive and economically sustainable.

Source: Tom Stanley, Virginia Cooperative Extension