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Women in Ag: New Year Goals

This fall and early winter, my husband, Eric, and I put a big focus on improving what we do with the cows in the hope that we’ll drive better performance from them. Our farm took a progressive step toward the future several years ago, when Eric's family went from housing and milking in the tie stall to housing in the freestall barn and milking in the tie stall. That was a big step at the time and it was meant for more cow comfort. I met the family and began consulting on this farm in 2007, two years before they took the leap and put in a parlor. The parlor would not only be a step toward cow comfort but also a push for efficiency. It required fewer people and far less time to milk the cows. I married Eric in 2013.

Fast forward a few years, and we’ve since seen changes in calf housing and management, an increase in young stock inventory because of those changes and therefore, a need for a new calf transition building since we ran out of space. Those girls then became cows, and we needed more space for more milking cows, so an addition was put onto the barn making a new dry cow pen (another cow comfort move); this gave the old dry cow pen to the milking herd. We’re still full on animals, but we’re getting good at shuffling and sorting.

All the previous changes enabled us to continually find more space, take better care of younger animals, and find a lot of efficiency. So, with a focus on improving facilities, we moved forward, but we’ve hit the wall on improving facilities. We don’t need to build more buildings to get more milk from the girls or improve their reproductive performance. It’s time to take a necessary step back and refocus on maintaining and improving what we have done so far. The girls have the necessary things in front of them to succeed, and it’s up to us to make it happen.

We have been revising our calf program, refocusing our fresh cow program, and dialing in our reproductive management. These three areas will net us some quick results on fresh animals, a nice improvement as we reach the midway point in our reproduction goals. It is a long wait, but we expect to reach our goal in about two years, when the calves currently on the ground hit the milking string. I am focusing on the changes in our calf program today.

The calf program has been primarily on my shoulders in terms of revision and sorting through where we go next. I have been working through it from a consultant’s perspective for a while now and decided that I needed a fresh set of eyes. I brought in the salesman from the feed mill we work with, our herd veterinarian, and our local Extension agent. In addition to that, I have spent some extra time with my clients who do exceptionally well with calves and found some tidbits I could bring back home.

The biggest challenge on our farm with calves is space and time. We have three awesome “calf barns” that each hold 10 calves. When they were built, we were struggling with calf health and management. The idea behind the barns was to improve the human part of the system so that the calf part could benefit. It’s not often that a change in a system to benefit people works out for the calves, but in this case, I can confidently say it did. That was the first step in the glut of animals on the system.

As we’ve done better with calves, we get more cows and then more calves…I think you can see the trend. When those three buildings were built, we were milking 40 fewer cows and had fewer calves. With the smaller numbers, we were able to maintain an all-in/all-out management system. Five years ago, it was a dream to have an empty building, move it, clean out from under, power wash and sanitize it. Today, it is very rare to have an empty stall, let alone an empty building. We routinely have 25 to 30 calves on milk every day. That overload on the system means I need calves to be weaned sooner, so they must be able to hit the ground running in group housing.

By working with my resources, we decided that my current feed rate of milk replacer wasn’t enough to gain enough growth to begin weaning at 42 days. So, we evaluated some different milk replacers, different feed rates, and feeding schedules. Ultimately the decision to feed more powder made the most sense, and for the last 10 days or so, that has been going on. It is far too early to establish any success with this new feeding program. I won’t truly even begin to develop the picture until I am looking at weaning the calves born at the first of the year. I have my fingers crossed that they are big enough to start the weaning process in mid-February.

A few other areas we addressed were moving the vaccination schedule up so that I am timing a couple of shots prior to weaning; then we can follow up one pen earlier in the transition barn to eliminate some respiratory issues we saw developing. Additionally, we worked with the University of Wisconsin to design a positive pressure ventilation system for that transition barn. We hope to have that work completed shortly as well.

Dairy farming is a never-ending cycle of events, and sometimes we find ourselves completing the cycle, but missing some details as we get wrapped up in others. Taking the time to refocus our efforts and look back at what we may have missed will often bring forth the results we may not have even known we were missing.

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