With a rolling herd average of more than 45,000 lbs on 90 cows (3X with BST), Ever-Green-Holsteins, Waldo, Wis., likely has the highest average in the country.
But Tom and Ginny Kestell, along with their son, Chris, insist they’re not doing anything all that special. Cows simply calve in well, peak at extremely high levels and then persist in that production through to the end of their lactations. Then, they calve in and do it all over again.
“I don’t think we have any secret ingredients. It’s just doing a lot of the right things and eliminating or avoiding the wrong,” says Tom.
“It’s a pretty simple formula: Genetics, good housing plus good nutrition and of course good labor,” he says.
Here are some milk production numbers by days-in-milk to ruminate on:
Steve Woodford, the Kestells’ nutritionist for the past 30 years, says what’s different about the Kestell herd from some of the other herds he works with is their persistency through lactation.
“The Kestell cows have a persistency that’s unbelievable,” he says. “They hit a level and stay there. It’s amazing.
“The cows also have high feed intakes, and as I’m balancing rations, I’m just trying to keep up with them,” he says.
Kestells feed twice a day in their tie stall barn, and push feed up four or five times. Dry matter intake averages 65 lb.
The key is forage quality. Kestells put up consistently good alfalfa haylage from a hybrid variety, with relative feed values ranging from 170 to 190. “It’s not rocket fuel, in the 240 range, but it’s a good consistent forage to work with,” says Woodford.
He says production kicked up a notch in the last four or five years when Kestells started feeding BMR corn silage. In 2016, they also “high chopped” their BMR silage, leaving 30” to 36” of stalks in the field to get a higher proportion of corn and leaf foliage. Plus, the corn silage is run through a shredder unit as it’s chopped.
“By cutting high, our starch levels went from mid-20s to up to as high 41%,” says Tom. “That let us drop the feeding rate of our 27% rolled high moisture corn from 22 lb per cow do 11 lb, and we’ve just recently reduced it again to 7.5 lb dry matter rate.”
“Some of the increase in milk production is legitimately from the BMR silage. It has incredible fiber digestibility,” says Woodford.
As a result, 68% of the ration dry matter comes from forage. On an as-fed basis, the TMR includes 40 lb. alfalfa haylage, 60 lb of corn silage, 4 lb of dry hay. The concentrate portion is 11 ½ lb of high moisture corn, 10 lb of protein mix, 3 lb of sugar and 3 lb of roasted soybeans for a total of 65 lb of dry matter.
The tie stall barn might also give the Kestells some advantage. Feed is delivered to each stall, and cows don’t have to compete for bunk space. “You don’t have the cow social issues in tie stalls that you sometimes get in freestalls,” says Woodford. So there’s no feed slugging or other off-feed issues, and virtually no displaced abomassums.
Pounds of milk per stall
From a business standpoint, a smaller tie stall operation is really no different than a larger farm. “Pounds of milk and income per stall are what it’s all about,” says Tom. “And that’s all about feed conversion, getting 2 lb of milk for every pound of dry matter intake cows consume.”
Kestell’s ration cost is about 11¢/lb. for a daily feed cost of $7/cwt. At a tank average of 125 lb and a Wisconsin all-milk price of $18/cwt in March, that’s about a $15 income over feed cost per cow per day margin.
The numbers are even more striking on a hundredweight basis, with the Kestell’s income over feed cost margin at about $16.75/cwt. The Wisconsin average margin per cow per day in March was about $10/cwt.
And when you get to these high levels of production—Kestell had 20 cows makes 60,000 lb last year—genetics really come into play. The Kestells are believers in deep cow families, and their barn is full of pedigreed cows with generations of both high production and type behind them.
“You do have to treat an extreme production herd differently than a 20,000 or 30,000-pound herd in terms of breeding,” says Tom. Second-lactation cows might not be bred back until 150 days in milk, depending on their production levels. Older cows might be given even more time. One six-year-old cow, producing 200 lb/day, has not been bred back yet even though she’s 194 days in milk.
Bringing it all together
The key to the expression of genetic potential is to have heifers well grown and disease free. “Everything kind of comes together if you have properly raised heifers,” Tom says. So baby calves are started in individual pens inside a plastic-sheathed heifer barn designed for optimal ventilation.
At weaning, they’re moved to a grower-barn that is also roofed with plastic but is open for maximum ventilation. “The barns are cold but well ventilated, and we really don’t have any problems with pneumonia,” he says.
Breeding age and bred heifers are fed a bulkier diet to encourage height and frame growth and to avoid fat deposition. The Kestells’ alfalfa is often too potent for growing heifers as a sole forage, so they add bulk and fiber to the ration with corn stalks from conventional varieties raised for high moisture grain. The stalks are shredded and baled at 40 to 50% moisture and stored in bags where they ferment fairly well.
“We like to calve heifers at two years of age, but we average two years and two months because we do a lot embryo work and they are our main recipients,” he says. “If they calve at two years of age, they’ll weigh 1,300 lb.”
Once heifers calve, they’ll be given additional time to grow as well. “Our average peak milk on first calf heifers is 130 lb., so we’ll let them be 120 to 140 days in milk before they are bred for the first time,” says Tom.
In the end, Tom says, every farm has to do what fits its own situation. The key is to know what your goals are and focus efforts there.
Note: This story appears in the July 2017 issue of Dairy Herd Management.