The art of data collection and analysis – Dr. Greg Bethard, Pagel Family Businesses

Posted on June 29, 2016 in Starting Strong - Calf Care

Raising replacement heifers is an expensive but vital component of any dairy farm’s success.

Dr. Greg Bethard, chief financial officer for Pagel Family Businesses, uses a strategic approach in assessing the efficiency of raising heifers on two large dairy farms.

“Wisconsin is a terrible place to raise heifers,” Bethard said and went on to explain he estimates the cost of raising a heifer in Wisconsin to be between $1,700 and $1,900.  That’s compared to about $1,600, including the cost of freight, to raise a heifer in Nebraska or Kansas.  He said the higher cost in Wisconsin is attributed to more expensive feed and labor.

“The challenge is if you don’t trust the person raising your heifers or can’t get a quality product,” Bethard said.  That’s why many Wisconsin producers choose to keep the calves on their own farms.

Bethard oversees the financials for Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, which milks 5,300 Holstein-Jersey crossbred cows, and Dairy Dreams, which milks 2,850 Holstein cows.  Although his job is to manage costs and increase efficiency, he said he’s willing to overspend on calves because they play such a vital role in the future success of the milking herd.

Bethard said he uses a lot of data to make effective decisions in the calf and heifer programs.  However, he cautioned attendees at the Vita Plus Calf Summit to not get too lost in the statistics and to be conscious of errors that might arise.

Bethard pointed out that one number can greatly distort the average results for a group, this is especially true for smaller herds.  Metrics such as death loss, treatment rates, growth rates, pregnancy rates, etc. can be thrown off by one or two outliers.  He said it’s important to look at the distribution of these metrics and ask if, overall, they make sense.

According to Bethard, data may begin to point out an issue, but a producer may wait to address the issue until the average significantly drops – and by that time the issue may have gotten out of control.  Average age at first calving and the 12-month pregnancy rate are two metrics susceptible to this error.  The lag time between when an event happens and when it is measured can also lead to errors when making management decisions.

Bethard said it took him a while to establish a data collection and analysis system that works, but now it takes him less than an hour to generate a monthly report to share with the calf managers at both dairies.  He puts the information in short, easy-to-read PowerPoint slides because managers can easily scroll through the information on their phones or other mobile devices.

One of the reasons he shares the monthly reports is because calf raisers are really good at knowing what’s happening on the farm right now, but not a month ago.  For example, they know exactly how many calves came in that day or which ones are being treated, but it’s difficult for them to think back to what they saw a month ago or more.  The reports help them keep perspective on what’s happened over time and pick up trends they may have missed otherwise.

Bethard recommends recording the dates of any changes in feeding or treatment programs so, when you look back at your data, you can more easily pinpoint why a change may have occurred.  This can also help decide whether that change was effective.

Finally, Bethard told calf raisers to avoid benchmarking as it can sometimes lead to a “good enough” philosophy.  Instead, set goals and continually evaluate those goals to think about how you can reach higher.  Involve your outside advisors, such as the veterinarian or nutritionist, in this process.

Category: Starting Strong - Calf Care
Technology and data management