Deciphering dairy data

Posted on December 4, 2015 in Dairy Performance
By Randy Greenfield
You don’t have to know me well to know I like to work with data.

Many producers aren’t quite as likely to get excited about data and spreadsheets, but I think everyone can appreciate the value in tracking dairy herd data to best manage health and performance.

We not only have sophisticated software packages to manage cows’ lactation events, but we’re also tracking individual cow daily milk, production, activity and rumination.  GPS, genomics and RFID technologies add even more tools to our arsenals and we can only guess what lies ahead.

Without a doubt, all of this technology – and the resulting data – can be overwhelming.  Which pieces of data are valuable to your business and can help you make better decisions?  How much is the information worth?  What can you learn?

Part of my job is to summarize performance data for dairy producers and use it to help them answer questions.  In my experience, here are the most valuable measures of dairy performance:

  • Pounds of combined fat and protein produced per cow per day for any given time period:  Pounds of fat and protein make up the majority of milk income for upper Midwest dairy producers.  I like to measure this on a rolling-year basis to see if we’re making progress and to remove any seasonal effects.
  • Milk basis:  This is the difference between the dairy’s pay price for milk and the Class III benchmark and is valuable in gauging financial performance.  When evaluated with the first metric, milk basis really drives the revenue side of the dairy business.
  • Turnover rates:  I look at the whole herd as well as segments such as first-lactation animals, fresh cows less than 61 days in milk, excess cattle sold and deaths.  Typically, lower rates are more desirable, but overall turnover could be high due to high replacement rates.
  • Metabolic disease rates:  Milk fevers, retained placentas and ketosis are monitored as rolling annual rates.  These can be good indicators of the transition program’s success.
  • Reproductive efficiency:  Primarily measured by pregnancy rate, this is monitored for both youngstock and adult herds.  Higher stats lead to shorter calving intervals and more replacements.  Very high rates can be a potential liability, however, if you have no plan for the dairy to profit from the extra replacements.  Higher pregnancy rates in the youngstock herd can lead to fewer days on feed and lower replacement costs.
  • Labor costs per hundredweight:  This is a common challenge for many farms.  Labor supplies seem to be shorter and compensation demands are higher.  Efficiency is more important than ever.

You’ll note this list doesn’t include data from many of the newest technologies.  I tend to be a skeptic.  Many of the new options are intriguing, but be sure to ask:  How will this investment pay for itself?  Also consider how the new data will be incorporated into existing systems so that it can be used effectively.

For now, the strategy remains simple:  Work with your team to identify key measures that have a real impact on your herd’s health and your farm’s financial performance.

Editor’s note:  This article was originally written for the November 7, 2015 issue of Progressive DairymanClick here for the full article.

About the author:  Randy Greenfield is a Vita Plus dairy specialist.  For the past 14 years, he has worked with dairy producers to help them strengthen their nutrition and management programs.  Greenfield grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Waupun, Wis. and attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to earn his bachelor’s degree.  He went on to receive his master’s degree from Purdue University.  In addition to nutrition, Greenfield has taken a special interest in dairy records and business consulting. 

Category: Business and economics
Dairy Performance
Milk production and components
Technology and data management