CSI-Dairy: Managing expansion challenges
Numerous ‘culprits’ on dairy farms combine to rob herd performance and injure a dairy’s bottom line. Identifying and arresting the offender isn’t always easy, and a proactive investigation can help reduce challenges before they arise.
By Kevin Putnam
In 2008, Bilow Farms, Malone, N.Y., was preparing for another expansion of both the dairy and farming operations. Owned by partners Vincent Bilow; his wife Trudy; son Andrew; and nephew Mike Poirier, the farm had grown slowly from 100 cows in the mid-80s to 1,000 cows in 2008. The current herd averaged 75 lbs. of milk/cow/day, with the high group averaging 110 lbs. Rations consisted of 47% forage with some purchased corn. The farm produced adequate forages needed for the current herd size. Overall, the operation was performing well.
But, with major expansion plans in place, Vincent knew refining his management practices was a necessity. Making the next jump to 1,650 cows was a colossal investment and certainly one that needed to pay for itself. The expansion called for precision.
Evaluating the entire operation was essential. Vincent understood the need for more efficient time, money and management practices. A critical component of success would be Vincent’s ability to produce enough high-quality feed to support his expansion. To take the herd to the next level would require more tonnage and more starch from corn silage acres.
Assembling the investigation team
Vincent always worked with several experts in a variety of fields, staying current on new management practices and products, meeting with each expert and gathering individual recommendations.
With an expansion looming, Vincent recognized a typical consultation with each expert wasn’t enough. So, he gathered his advisors as a team, including: crop consultant, Mike Contessa, Champlain Valley Agronomics; seed supplier, Floyd Morter, Bourdeau Bros. Inc.; area manager, David Kosztyo, Pioneer Hi-Bred; and nutritionist, Neil Andrew, Cargill. During the team’s first meetings, they identified five key issues:
1) Reduce variability and increase forage quality
2) Increase tonnage from fields
3) Improve forage starch content to support milk production
4) Reduce ration cost
5) Maintain cow health by increasing forages in the ration
Vincent is the first to admit that the first year was challenging. “We needed everyone to know that individual responsibilities still existed, but we were all there to ensure the recommendations worked together,” he said.
Over the next three seasons, the consulting team settled on several key recommendations:
• Choose one or two corn hybrids to reduce silage variability, selecting the top-performing hybrids for starch content and overall tonnage.
• Treat all corn silage and haylage with a top-quality L. buchneri inoculant to improve fiber digestibility, reduce shrink and stimulate fermentation efficiency.
• Look for hybrids better suited for the growing environment, reducing comparative relative maturity (CRM) to ensure all forage is harvested before the first frost.
• Increase the percentage of forage in the ration and use all home-grown forages to reduce ration costs and improve cow health.
• Implement a two-step bunker cover system to reduce spoilage and add a second packing tractor to increase density.
The consulting team still meets every fall to review the current program, walk through new issues that arose during the last season and discuss Vincent’s herd goals. Vincent is thrilled with the success his operation has had over the past four years, including surviving 2009.
The operation now has 1,650 cows. Across the entire herd, milk production has jumped 13 lbs. per cow, with the high group averaging 132 lbs. of milk per day. The ration is now 55% forage with all forages grown on the farm. Starch levels have gone up dramatically with samples averaging 36% and overall tonnage per acre has increased 30%.
The team approach continues to foster streamlined farming and dairy operations. Plus, Vincent cited some unexpected results from this big-picture perspective, such as the reduction in the number of fresh-cow issues and greatly improved milk components.
“I believe cows are healthier, the whole operation is more efficient and I receive the best recommendations out of my entire team,” Bilow reported. “We address the operation’s dynamics through conversation with everyone working toward the same goal. I spend less time facilitating each area of my operation and more time planning new goals for the future of Bilow Farms.”
The next goal at Bilow Farms is to expand the milking facility to accommodate three-times-a-day milking. Working with his team, expansion and efficient management are an easy transition.
Each month, DairyBusiness Communications will check the case files of lead dairy ‘investigators’ to uncover another ‘CSI-Dairy’ mystery. Episodes are archived at www.dairybusiness.com.