At Siemers Holsteins, young cows are appreciated but mature cows are cherished.
In fact, Dan and Paul Siemers would rather sell you a young cow than her dam, just because the older cow will produce more milk in the stall she occupies. “We sell about 700 cows as dairy replacements a year, and we sell a lot of them as two year olds,” Dan says.
Most farmers prefer buying young cows anyway, thinking they have the most potential. They might, of course, but Siemers have found that mature cows—many in their fourth, fifth and even sixth lactation—are the money cows.
The Siemers operate their fifth-generation farm founded in 1890 near Newton in northeastern Wisconsin. The herd has a rolling herd average of more 37,500 lb. on 2,700 cows. The herd is milked 3X and are on BST. Their tank average is 115 lb, thanks in large part to their mature cows.
First-calf heifers at the dairy have an average peak of 105 lb—nothing at all to sneeze at. But second lactation animals’ average peak is 151 lb and third lactation, 161 lb. Last year, more than 200 cows achieved 200,000 lb lifetime and one matron surpassed 400,000 lb.
Siemers’ Holstein is a high genetics, registered Holstein herd which sells replacements, embryos and bulls into A.I. All virgin heifers are used as recipients for embryos, with more than 2,000 embryos implanted annually and 1,000 actually being born on the dairy.
Dan lives and breathes genetics. “We shoot for a little more type, because our best type cows out-perform those that don’t score as well,” he says.
Buyers want cattle with sound udders, so Dan places an emphasis on udder composites when selecting sires. “I also want cows with enough front end—with width of chest and more open rib. This type of cow tends to be willing to give more milk,” he says. “We also like cows that are athletic and move freely.
“But you have to temper that with enough health traits because you can’t have everything. Productive life and livability traits are important, but management is more important than any other trait,” he says. “Seventy-five percent of what we do is management, and genetics is a good compliment on top of that.”
Sand bedding is critical
Siemers believe the key to milk production is cow comfort. Large, comfortable stalls and sand bedding are critical components.
“Sand is big,” says Dan. It gives cows good traction in alleys which means fewer injuries and less lameness. It’s also crucial to milk quality. That means lower somatic cell counts and less clinical mastitis. On any given day, only four cows out of 2,400 milking is being treated for mastitis. Lower cell counts also mean more milk and better reproduction.
Farmers often visit the dairy and say they want to replicate the Siemers’ success. “But if they’re not willing to look at cow comfort and sand bedding, they’re going to have a difficult time,” says Dan.
As the Siemers expanded over the decades, they had to economize and build six-row freestall barns. Knowing the limitations of these barns, they say stall dimensions, sand bedding and pen stocking rates all come into play.
Access to feed is also critical in the more densely-concentrated, six-row barns. Most groups are fed twice a day or at least topped off a second time, feed is pushed up every two hours in between and rations fed for a 5% or higher refusal rate. All of that is done to ensure cows have access to feed any time they want it. “There has to be enough feed there at 3 a.m. that any cow can get a meal,” says Dan.
Old feed is pushed out daily, with refusals fed to older heifers that are housed on site. That means fresh feed is never piled on top of old to avoid spoilage, off-feed problems or digestive upsets. Dry matter intake ranges from 67 to 71 lb in the high groups, and heifers are pushing 54 lb.
Replacements are also grown aggressively. “We have our calves on an accelerated feeding program, and they get milk four times a day,” says Dan. “I’m a big fan of pushing heifers along. It’s like training an Olympic athlete. You just don’t decide to become an Olympic athlete one day. You train your whole life for it. And that’s what we expect of our heifers.
“People do tend to calve in their heifers younger than we do. We’re at about 23 ½ months,” he says. But as mentioned, most of the heifers are used as embryo recipients so Dan wants them to cycle a time or two more to optimize pregnancy rates.
He also believes that slightly older heifers will produce more milk. “We want to max out each stall,” he says.
By the book
“The Siemers are very particular as far as management goes,” says their nutritionist, Jeff Rortvedt. “Cow comfort is extremely good and done by the book.”
For example, the Siemers have an industrial-scale sand screen on site that they use to sieve fresh sand before its placed in freestalls. The screen sorts out any small stones so they don’t end up in the alley ways and injure cows’ hooves. The small stones are recycled and used as drainage gravel under calf pens.
Employee management is also a point of emphasis. “The employees are so well managed that things get done when they’re supposed to be done,” says Rortvedt. “Feed is pushed up every two hours, and the employee pushing up the feed punches a clock to show when he did so. And it’s done around the clock, not just during the day, so there’s no empty bunk syndrome at this dairy.”
Virtually every task at the dairy has a protocol for it. Written in English and in Spanish, the protocols detail what has to be done and how it has to be done. “The Siemers also have training sessions going over these protocols to make sure things are done correctly,” says Rortvedt. “On these larger dairies, protocols and training sessions are a big deal because you need things done right all the time, not just some of the time.”
Forage quality is also a priority. For corn silage, the Siemers feed 50/50 conventional/BMR silage that is grown in the field rather than blending it out of two pits when rations are mixed. The corn is planted in four rows of BMR and four rows of conventional corn, and is automatically mixed when the corn is harvested.
Agronomists generally don’t recommend the practice because it’s often difficult to match up hybrid maturities. But after several seasons of experimenting, the Siemers have found a way to make it work.
“I think it’s working really well,” says Rortvedt. “We get a little higher starch with the conventional corn, and we get more digestibility with the BMR. So it’s the best of both worlds.”
Note: This story appears in the July 2017 issue of Dairy Herd Management.