How a focus on cow comfort has helped me

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Editor's note: This Practice Builder was contributed by Chris Hill, nutritionist for Poulin Grain in Vermont. It first appeared in the Sept. 18, 2009, edition of this newsletter. Chris Hill recently was asked if he had any updates, and he said to go with the original column — it's still very pertinent to today.


I have always felt that if farmers spent a little more time and money taking care of their cows, the cows would pay them back.

After I graduated from college, I was fortunate enough to find a job as a herdsman with a producer who proved this for me. We had sand stalls, some bedded-pack space, an intensive hoof-trimming program, and basically focused on treating the cows as well as we could. I know some of our expenses were higher than in other herds, but the production level and internal herd growth more than made up the difference to the point where we were one of the most profitable herds in the Northeast.

Meanwhile, I had noticed many articles about the latest feed additives, but very few about cow comfort. I have always felt that if cows are not provided with an environment in which they can adequately feed and rest, it will not make much of a difference as to what we do as nutritionists. I decided to go back to school to obtain a master's degree so I could put some science behind my experiences as a herdsman. I wanted to prove to other farmers that investing in improvements, such as stall renovations, would prove economically justified.

I feel that my experience and focus on cow comfort has given me an edge in my career as a nutritionist and feed salesman. For example, this focus has helped me break the ice on cold calls. We all know that farmers are immediately skeptical when a new salesperson shows up in the dooryard.

After I introduce myself and mention a little bit about my background, most farmers are intrigued. Even on the first visit, they want to know my opinions on stocking density when I tell them about my thesis on the subject. By focusing on their cows and management, I can start a conversation without really looking like I am trying to sell something.

These initial conversations have often led to the chance to do a full evaluation in which I measure the stalls and alleys, calculate the cows per stall and feed bunk space, and do body condition and lameness evaluations. Very few of my competitors are doing these things as thoroughly. Even if I do not get the business right away, I earn the farmer's respect and trust. I am confident that these efforts at least move me into second place.

I started with a list and no customers, but now I am doing fairly well.

One of my first customers was milking 590 cows when I started working with him. Since we have been working together, they have grown internally to the point where they are milking 630 cows and are starting to have to cull heavily to keep from becoming too crowded. One of the things I noticed when I first started there was that the fresh group would fill up the section of stalls with decent mattresses first when they came back from the parlor. When we put new, more comfortable mattresses in the other stalls, the pattern completely reversed and these were filled up first. We have since re-done many of the stalls and mattresses in the barn as well as increased the amount of water available. We are also making about 5 pounds more milk than we were when I started, and they have very few fresh-cow issues.

If we put a little more time and effort into taking care of our cows, they will repay us.



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