One of the benefits of a pasture system is less stress on the cows. We’re now in our eleventh season of grazing and our eight season of seasonal production. We’re beginning to see a pattern developing that makes our seasonal pasture system even better than I had realized.
In the early years of seasonal production we always had about 15 to 20% of the herd that didn’t breed back in our seasonal window. That didn’t cause major concerns since we had plenty of new heifers to fill the space and the out of window cows brought good money on the springer market when they calved later in May or June. Along with the normal cull rate of about 10% for other reasons we actually were able to grow our herd slightly because we were also able to raise nearly 100% of our heifer calves.
The last couple of years we have been getting a higher percentage of our cows to freshen in our seasonal window and suddenly we’re seeing an increase in herd size due to low culling and plenty of new heifers. With the addition of several acres of leased land we now have adequate pasture to handle a larger herd. We have also found that in this pasture, seasonal system, we can handle the expansion with a minimum of additional labor.
I believe that lower cull rates can be achieved by most pasture dairymen. The issue is we must put the cows under less stress than is practiced today under the conventional system of management. We can do that and still be very profitable. Some of the management that needs to change: Cows are not mono-gastric, high energy diets aren’t what cows were made to digest. That includes high energy fermented forages as well. Cows can’t handle excess fat on their bodies. Cows should be fed to have slight body weight gains late in lactation but dry cow rations should be designed to only gain the weight of the carried calf. Cows shouldn’t be started on a high powered energy ration right after calving. Allow them to freshen and start producing slowly. That keeps the cow from going into a negative energy balance and allows her to be in a gaining plain at about 60 to 90 days after calving. That in turn gives her a better chance to conceive at first breeding. All these management issues can be more easily handled in a spring seasonal herd, although anyone can do it with good feed management. Late summer pasture is usually high quality and allows the cows to gain slight body condition. A cow that lacks adequate body condition can be dried off early to help add that extra condition. It’s easy to manage winter feed quality so that cows don’t gain excess fat. Remember the calf gains the most in the last trimester so over-feeding the cow causes large calves. Keep stress levels low at calving. Start cows milking on good quality stored forage. Don’t push them to produce until they have recovered from calving. Spring flush grass coming 30 days after calving can be just what a cow needs to get off and running well. That should have her in a gaining plain when it’s time to breed.
All these things can happen if our dairy operation isn’t under such financial stress that we in turn stress the cows to produce more. Much of that only happens if we have good financial accounting to know when and where we’re making a profit. That to me is the only place the large confinement dairies have it over on the smaller dairies. They know their costs of each aspect of production. Right now you can bet they’re trying to figure out how to maintain production while lowering their cull rate and increasing there heifer replacements.
As I see our herd expanding I realize that there is more than just cow numbers. Since Scott became a partner three years ago we have been watching his equity expand rapidly and net income per cow is moving up also since we’re able to handle more cows per worker in our low management seasonal system.
I recall a conversation with Charlie Opitz several years ago where he relate the way to wealth was in growing equity, and reducing cull levels was one of his major suggestions for equity growth.
I recently set up an excel spreadsheet to look at the impact of cull rates on herd expansion. Two dairymen each milking 100 cows and having a 40% replacement heifer crop but one having a 20% cull rate and the other a 30% cull rate. In ten years the one with a 20% cull rate could be milking 430 cows just from raising his own replacements while the one with a 30% cull rate would only be milking 210 cows. Increase that cull rate to the 35 to 40% levels that are prevalent in today’s confinement herds or reduce the heifer replacement numbers due to extended lactations or calf mortality and suddenly the herd has negative growth. In my opinion that’s what’s happening in many of today’s larger herds. Yes, they’re expanding but that expansion as well as maintaining herd numbers is coming from someone else’s heifers. I realize that this spreadsheet is just a play on numbers but it also shares some excellent insight into what can happen on a well managed low stress herd of milking cows.
I get quite defensive now when I hear the supposed experts say that extended lactations make more money per cow. I doubt that the reduction in equity due to the lower number of replacements is figured in the equation.