Improving Productive Life is Critical to Economically and Environmentally Sustainable Dairy – INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVES

Keeping cows productive as long as possible is a critical part of improving both the economic health and the sustainability of a dairy operation. However, a variety of pressures, from health issues like mastitis, to reproductive failures, to calving patterns creating a high number of replacements for older cows who find themselves pushed out, are constantly chipping away at the average age of a herd, to a point where fewer animals go beyond the break-even point where they have earned back their heifer rearing costs. In today’s Industry Perspectives piece, Gavin Staley, ruminant technical specialist with Cargill’s Diamond V, makes a case for the importance of moving towards a productive life model, ensuring that the most promising heifers have the chance to mature into older cows who will remain healthy and productive through multiple lactations.

[Feedinfo] Why is increasing the productive life of dairy herds a priority for the dairy industry?

[Gavin Staley] Productive life (PL) can be like a New Year’s resolution. It sounds like a good idea, but often it doesn’t come true, and sadly that is the case on many dairies. But increasing the productive life of dairy herds needs to be a priority for the dairy industry. Not only does it lead to higher milk production, improved feed efficiency, and ultimately improved profitability, but there is also a social license aspect that has become increasingly important. The consumer wants to know more about the products they are consuming. Very young herds have high culling rates. The reality is that in some herds, 45% of the herd is being culled each year. This is very hard to justify in the public arena. It needs to be recognised that increasing the productive life of herds requires the dairy to be able to create and retain mature healthy older cows. If this is not possible then older cows will be culled early, and the goal of increasing PL will be derailed.

Lastly is the sustainability piece. A herd with a higher proportion of younger animals emits more methane and excretes more phosphorus in the environment than a herd with a greater proportion of older cows, because of the need for more heifers (remember that, on average, dairy heifers require a 24-month growing period until they calve). It is a win for everyone involved to increase the productive life of dairy cows.

[Feedinfo] What are the main factors that determine the break-even point on a dairy? When do most US dairies reach that point?

[Gavin Staley] Every dairy has a breakeven point. It is the point when the cumulative daily cash flow generated from milk sales equals the total cost of heifer raising. The cumulative return will have us in the red until somewhere in the second lactation, when a cow has created enough value from milk production to offset their heifer rearing costs. However, the break-even point can differ between dairies due to various factors, such as milk price and feed cost.

[Feedinfo] What does it mean exactly to “convert platinum heifers into golden girls”?

[Gavin Staley] Converting what I like to call “platinum heifers” into “golden girls” means that the heifers coming into the herd are healthy, well-grown heifers that reach the lactating herd at a size and weight that is on target to achieve mature body weight in their third lactation. “Platinum heifers” are heifers that are likely going to pay back their rearing costs sooner and achieve higher milk production. If we can keep those girls in the herd longer, after the breakeven point, we can create a herd of “golden girls”. These are the “paid off” animals, what some farmers will call “budget balancers” or “mortgage lifters”. They are very important animals on the dairy.

When it comes to how to do this, there are, of course, multiple approaches to raising heifers, but unfortunately, many dairy farmers lack crucial information as they often do not weigh their animals. Without accurate weight measurements, it becomes challenging to determine when heifers have reached the desired percentage of growth. It’s not solely a matter of implementing a specific feeding strategy; rather, the underlying issue lies in the absence of knowledge about the progress being made due to the lack of animal weighing. It’s like driving a car without knowing your exact location or monitoring your progress. Therefore, it is essential to prioritize weighing animals and managing the process to gain a clear understanding of the heifers’ development and ensure their successful transition into productive members of the herd.

[Feedinfo] While a herd that is skewed towards younger animals might be barely paying off heifer-rearing costs, there are caveats to remember with an older herd as well. What problems might mature cows have? How can these problems be minimised?

[Gavin Staley] First off, when I say “golden girls” I am not talking about cows that are in frail care in a nursing home. These are animals that are more comparable to “active retiree” grandmas playing tennis and living their best lives in a retirement community. There is no doubt that more mature cows might experience health challenges such as lameness or transition diseases. They require extra tender loving care. They may also have difficulty breeding back as quickly as younger cows, leading to increased days open. However, these problems can be minimized through additional management focus and providing proper care to older cows.

[Feedinfo] What are some solutions for preventing premature culling of older cows?

[Gavin Staley] There are four main reasons why our older cows are leaving the herd too soon. I like to call them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.  They boil down to mastitis, transition disorders, lameness/injury, and reproduction/low production failures. And if you are looking for an honorary horseman, throw heat stress into the mix and you can magnify the impact of the other four significantly.

Prevention is key! We need to implement preventive strategies for these issues so we can help reduce premature culling and extend the productive life of older cows. As Dr. Peter Attia MD laid out in his human health book Outlive, the concept of a “health-span” — a longer, higher productive life — should increasingly be preferred to just a “life-span”. That’s relevant for dairy animals too.

[Feedinfo] Can you briefly describe the productive life model?

[Gavin Staley] Productive lifespan, by definition, is the time from first calving until a cow exits the herd. We are not talking about the (desirable) genetic trait of productive life, although that is important. The productive life model looks to extend the productive lifetime of dairy cows. It involves maintaining a herd with a higher percentage of mature cows, also known as “golden girls”, which leads to a lower replacement rate and allows for lower heifer inventory. This model aims to achieve higher milk production and reduce costs associated with heifer rearing.

[Feedinfo] What can producers do to extend the productive life of dairy cows? How does this ultimately help get as close to the ideal demographic model as possible?

[Gavin Staley] There are two things to understand. Committing to increasing the average age of your cows is not for the faint of heart, and you can’t flip a switch and magically increase the age of your herd. It takes commitment and time to be an elite herd.

It starts with good records. You need to understand where you are today and what is it going to take to increase the average lactation. Work with your farm’s advisory team to identify and begin implementing strategies that will create the conditions that allow healthy mature cows to thrive e.g., transition management and improved heat abatement measures. Understand why cows are being culled, allowing one to focus on the key ‘Horseman’ holding the dairy back. Extending the productive life of dairy cows helps to achieve a herd demographic model that requires fewer replacements and lower heifer inventory, ultimately reducing costs and increasing profitability.

Finally, there is one other point that is important to remember: extending the productive life of a herd stands on the shoulders of calving in what I call “platinum heifers”.  Those mature, well-grown-out heifers are more likely to graduate into “golden girls”.  Immature heifers virtually guarantee that a herd will not achieve improved productive life.While effective management plays a significant role, proper nutrition and nutritional interventions also play a vital part in paving the way towards a more productive life and generating more Golden Girls. Contact us for more information or to find out how we can help you extend the productive life of your dairy cows. And for more information on how to support health and immunity, visit Dairy Nutrition & Health – Dairy Feed Additives – Diamond V.

  • Published in association with Diamond V, a Cargill brand