Is overcrowding ever worth it?
It is not uncommon for farms to house more dairy cows in a pen than there are stalls. Overcrowding is a way to dilute a farm’s fixed assets — but do the benefits outweigh the costs?
The answer to that question depends on the farm. In an I-29 Moo University podcast, University of Minnesota extension dairy specialist Jim Salfer and University of Florida professor Albert DeVries talked about why stocking density works on some farms but not others.
“If you are going to overstock, don’t just do what the neighbor is saying,” Salfer said. He said the farms that succeed with overstocking are “perfect” in all other areas of the farm, from good transition cow care to bunk management and from foot health to heat abatement.
When overstocking, DeVries explained that a farm is accepting, to some extent, that individual cows will lose some milk, but they will make up for it by having more cows producing milk in the same pen. However, the amount of milk loss that can be tolerated is very farm specific.
“It depends a lot on income over feed cost,” DeVries continued. “If there is a big difference when the milk price is high and feed cost is low, overstocking pays. If there is a small difference between milk price and feed cost, overstocking doesn’t pay.”
Both DeVries and Salfer mentioned that the typical dairy’s reaction to low milk prices is to milk more cows but overstocking in this situation is not the right answer. “The marginal value of that extra cow is low,” DeVries noted.
“You can’t lose very much milk per cow before overstocking doesn’t pay very much,” Salfer added.
Although more cows per stall means more milk per pen, DeVries said there is a cost to making that milk, from feeding extra cows to raising more replacements. “You can’t only look at volume of milk or milk solids produced,” he said.
DeVries indicated that income over feed cost is pretty good in the current economic climate, and in turn, overstocking pays right now. But to determine if overstocking is worthwhile on your individual farm, or what level of overstocking is acceptable, the duo encouraged producers to utilize the Stall Stocking Density Calculator created by DeVries and his colleagues. A link to the spreadsheet is available in this University of Florida dairy extension fact sheet.
The speakers emphasized there is one group that should never be overstocked, and that is the transition cows. “Never, ever overcrowd close-up or just-fresh cows,” stated Salfer. He said that farms managing overstocking successfully manage that group of cows with “kid gloves.” DeVries echoed those sentiments and pointed out that the spreadsheet was built for cows that were past the transition period.
August 29, 2022