Maintaining a high IHG is key to profit

By Susan Harlow

You’ve heard it before – maintaining a strong internal herd growth (IHG) is the key to profitability. 

“Growth in a producer’s volume of sales is one of the few ways to stay ahead of the inherent inflation that takes place in the fixed cost side of their business,” says Gary Snider, farm business consultant with Farm Credit of Western New York.

Add to that the fact you can probably raise your own replacements more affordably than anyone else because you already have inputs such as labor, says Snider. And internal herd growth is a good way to build your net worth without borrowing money. 

Sexed semen has made all the difference in the internal herd growth (IHG) rate on Andersonville Dairy LLP.

Through the early 2000s, the ratio of heifers born on the dairy ran 33 to 38%, which drove down the dairy’s IHG. “We’d always done a good job of raising heifers, but four years ago, we began using sexed semen,” says co-owner Mark Rodgers. “Since Jan. 1, 2006, we’ve had 300 heifer calves hit the ground and I’ve lost one.” Low calf mortality rate also contributes to a strong IHG.

 Rodgers is a partner with Ted Young in the 200-cow dairy in Glover, Vt.  Their herd average is 25,685 pounds.

In 2001, the dairy had about100 head. Rodgers and Young began growing the herd size, to 160 last year. After installing a new parlor last December, they purchased 40 heifers to replace low-end cows and to maximize the parlor’s capacity. Of 101 cows that entered the herd in 2008, 60 were raised internally, for an IHG of 25%. This year Rodgers and Young are milking 200. 

Last year,  67 heifer calves were born to the 68 cows and heifers bred with sexed semen (with a conception rate of 55%). Of a total of 153 cows and heifers bred with unsexed semen, 74 had heifers and 79 had bulls. 

On the other side of the coin, heifers bred with sexed semen had a higher number of stillborn calves. Of the 141 calves born to heifers, 10 were born dead, all from sexed semen sires. Rodgers says he doesn’t know yet if it was a fluke, especially since he makes sure to use sires with a high calving ease score. “Most DOAs were in heifers that had easy calving,” he says. “We did all we could but don’t know the reason, so we don’t know how to manage around it.”

For the last year and a half, Rodgers has been using sexed semen on cows with a history of conception on first and second service, with no calving difficulties and in strong standing heat. Eighty out of 155 cows are now pregnant with sexed semen. Being choosy about which cows to use sexed semen on saves him the cost of an open animal and expensive semen.

So is sexed semen worth it? “Absolutely,” Rodgers says.

However, this year he has cut back on its use. “It’s the economics and the fact you can’t get rid of the heifer calves at a good price,” he says. “Last year I could sell any heifer, but not this year.” 

Last year, the bumper crop of heifers allowed the dairy to sell 25 heifers and 12 cows for dairy. Only two heifers were sold due to injuries; one died of pneumonia. Of 72 cows that left the herd last year as involuntary culls, most were for injuries, feet and legs, and mastitis and reproduction problems. 

Rodgers makes sure replacements are treated well. He feeds and manages for  a 1,300-pound heifer after first calving, with an average age at first calving of 23 months.

Rodgers uses a synchronization program, timed AI and CIDRs on cows more than 60 days days in milk that haven’t shown good heat, and based on a veterinarian’s recommendations. “We prefer to use and breed off natural heats,” he says. Activity monitors that came with the new DeLaval parlor have made a difference. “That’s improved heat detection quite a bit, especially on synchronized animals,” Rodgers says. “It’s too early to tell about a better pregnancy rate, but it has definitely improved heat detection.”

Raising their own replacements doesn’t just save Rodgers and Young money in animal purchases. “I’ve found over and over and over again that the animals we purchase don’t perform within 80% of what ours do,” Rodgers says. “The way we raise them they are trained to eat, to thrive, to be almost overachievers.”

Jeremy Michaud had growth on his mind when he returned from to his family’s dairy, Clair-a-Den Dairy, in E. Hardwick, Vt., Cornell in 1999. After they built a new 100-stall barn, Michaud asked his father, Denis Michaud, if they could buy some cows.  “They’re right there,” his father said, pointing to the barn.  “You’ve got to go make them.”  

With the exception of some heifers with a purchased farm, Michaud and his brothers have not bought a cow. Yet the dairy has expanded from 140 milking head to 500 today, with an IHG of 16% projected for this year. 

Michaud runs the dairy along with brothers Daniel and Travis, and Travis’ wife, Crystal. They have 550 milking cows and a total of 1,100 head, some housed on a nearby farm where Crystal is herdsman. With the help of seven full-time employees, they milk the main herd 3X and fresh cows 4X. To cut costs, the Michauds just began milking 2X at the second farm. Their double-8 herringbone  parlor runs round the clock. Herd average is 26,000 pounds.

“At our present rate, we could add 90 cows a year,” Michaud says. We’ve been marketing heifers the last four years, but I need to do more of it.”

Michaud says he’s always followed the same philosophy – take care of the cows, and that’s called for some experimentation.  “I’ve had more ideas that panned out than failed,” he says. It helps that he has a good instinct for cows, with the ability to observe them and intuitively know what’s going on. 

And because his brothers concentrate on outside work with crops and machinery, Michaud can put his full attention on the  cows, employees and facilities. 

These are factors in the dairy’s strong internal herd growth:

• Cull rate. It runs 14 to 22%, and today is 20%.  Michaud’s rule for culling is “three strikes and you’re out.”

“The price of milk will force us to cull a little harder,” he says. “But we have a lot of heifers to calve.”

The 250-stall barn that houses 400 cows ties older facilities together with newer ones. Most stalls are bedded with sand; some with mattresses and sawdust.  The overcrowding rate for the fresh-cow group stays at 30%; close-up is the only group that Michaud doesn’t overcrowd.

The keys to overcrowding successfully are knowing when you’ve gone too far and minding the details.  “If we pay attention to the details, we get away with it,” Michaud says. “Cows in a challenging environment adapt well to similar environments throughout their lives.”

Being patient with sick and injured cows is a big part of a low cull rate. “Sometimes a cow just needs time,” Michaud says. “You don’t expect to have back surgery and be out running a marathon the next day.  It’s amazing how cows can heal themselves.”

Even though barns are overcrowded, there are options for the less-than-healthy cow. He’ll put her in with the fresh cows or, if there’s room, in the hospital barn.

The involuntary culls are spread evenly among most risk factors. But feet and legs are Michaud’s biggest pet peeve, so he does his own hoof trimming on a regular schedule. 

• Reproduction. “Reproduction is as significant to me as production. You have to get cows bred,” Michaud says. “We focus on making milk, but cows are making babies, too.”

“And we’re finding out that without BST, repro is twice as important. We used to be able to keep a cow going a little bit longer; now we have to be more aggressive with our management.”

The dairy’s pregnancy rate is 23 to 30%. But the number that really matters to Michaud is the percentage of cows still open over 150 days in milk. He likes to keep it at 10 to 15%; currently that number 8%. “If I see that start to move, I get nervous. That’s the number I really pay attention to because that takes all the other numbers with it.” Average days open is now 118.

Good heat detection is the key to keeping the number down, and close observation is the key to good heat detection. “I spend 40 to 45 minutes every morning just walking around. I may be vaccinating or doing other things, but I’m physically in the barn, checking for lameness and mastitis,” Michaud says. 

They use a protocol of three shots of prostaglandin at 12 to 18 days apart before first service, and Ovsynch on cystic cows or those that palpate open. They use CIDRs on inactive cows after they’ve been checked at least twice and had no ovarian structures. 

 Michaud learned to palpate from his veterinarian and does his own weekly herd checks,  “That allows me to check any cow any time I want to.”

He has used sexed semen for the last 1 1/2 years – not that he has to, since he has plenty of heifers. But he wanted to see if he could make sexed semen work. “It’s worth the effort, but there is effort,” he says. 

The conception rate with is 45 to 48% compared to 50-plus with non-sexed semen. “We did lose a little bit but not near what people told me I should expect,” he says. 

To use sexed semen better, Michaud changed some management –  observing heifers for heats one extra time a day and dropping from two services to one service. He’s also begun using sexed semen on first-calf heifers but is not having as good luck.

Age at first calving (AFC) is 24 months. It had been as low as 21 to 22 months. “But the heifers aren’t mature enough [at 22 months]– there just isn’t enough animal,” Michaud says. “More make it through the first lactation now.”

• DOA’s. Percentage of stillborns and dead calves under 24 hours of age runs 3-5%. Last fall, Michaud moved the calving pen from the far end of the barn to the other end, beside the farm office, near the milking parlor and where he can see it from his house where he and wife, Leslie, and three young sons live. Now employees walk by continually and can see freshening cows that need help. “I can already tell it’s making a big difference,” Michaud says.

A strict newborn and sick-calf care protocol helps minimize the risk. For all heifers, the mortality rate from 24 hours until they calve is 4%. 

To monitor his cows, Michaud follows a protocol unchanged for 10 years.  From his Westfalia-Surge Dairy Plan program, he generates a list of cows that failed to eat, and he observes them on a daily morning walk-through. He separates some for further examination.

Each Tuesday, he lists on a yellow lined pad cows that need reproduction attention – pregnancy checks, prostaglandin shots, breeding, CIDRs, or to start on Ovsynch. 

Fresh cows are monitored the same way. Data from each list is entered into computer, to provide a summary report.

In the end, it all comes back to patience and consistency. “It bothers me to let things slide, “ he says.