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Management is Key to Successful Overstocking

Karen Bonhert

March 14, 2022

Mailboxes prices are the highest they have been in eight years. When milk prices are high, producers begin to question if they should milk more cows to capitalize on that milk check. Doing this often means cow pens fill up, pushing stocking ratios.

The standard stocking rate is simple. A one-to-one ratio, essentially making sure every stall is full. According to Jim Salfer, Dairy Extension Educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, says some farms achieve high milk production and have healthy cows with pens containing 40% more cows than stalls. “Other farms have challenges if cows are overcrowded more than 10%,” he says.

Financial consultant Gary Sipiorski says the question isn’t ‘Can I push more cows?’ Instead, it should be ‘Am I limiting my cows potential if I overstock?’

Sipiorski concurs with Salfer, stating he has seen producers stocking capacity range from 90% to 150% capacity.

“You might ask how come such a spread,” Sipiorski states. “The answer lies in good management that is provided.”

Salfer agrees, saying that while some farms push overstocking ratios and have average daily production of more than 100 lbs. per cow. The reason they can do that is because of fine-tuned management on the farm.

Management Checklist

Before producers expand pens sizes, Sipiorski suggests addressing the following questions to your herd’s management.

  • Can the cows lay down for 12 to 14 hours a day (Cows won’t lay down in a poor quality stall unless it is the last resort).

  • Is there plenty of bunk time?

  • Do all cows have water to drink, especially as they exit the parlor?

  • What is the holding time before milking? Beyond 45 minutes is too long for a cow to stand, especially if they are milked three times a day.

  • Is there fresh feed available after the cows leave the parlor?

  • Is the freestall environment quiet? (Ex.: handling with ease, no yelling, no whistling, etc.)

  • How much time are cows being locked up?

  • How is the barn’s ventilation and are the cows cool in the summer months?

Sipiorski shares that the top third of producers are asking the tough questions and ensuring their cows are meeting the above checklist before even considering adding more cows. He also shares those producers work closely with proper recommendations coming from their nutritionist and other key advisors.

“Depending on how the producer performs on the checklist above will show if there is room to increase stocking ratios,” he says.

Salfer states that cows will give up eating time to achieve lying time, so make sure they can do both.

“Cows ate faster to achieve longer lying times, which could affect components and increase the risk of acidosis,” he shares. “Rest and rumination are important for cow welfare. 90% of rumination should happen when cows are lying down.”

No Alert Signal

First lactation cow are an important group to monitor, as Sipiorski says they’re trying to figure out their social standpoint within the herd.

“You have to watch for things such as if there is a boss cow blocking waters,” he notes. “Truthfully, you must be good at listening to the cows, which will determine how far above you can push pen limits.”

The slippery slope is that no alarm goes off to alert you when you have too many cows in one pen. This can negatively impact the herd. Long-term ramifications from overstocking range from a decline in reproduction and components, an increase in somatic cell count, as well as an increased rate of lameness. Sipiorski says unfortunately the negative impacts don’t show up in a herd right away, but once they are present, they don’t go away right away either.

“You need to stay in-tune with what’s going on with your herd,” he shares. “There is no magic number.”

Do the Math

More milk seems like it should result in more money, but that is not always the case. Salfer says producers could milk more cows and make less money so they must not only crunch the numbers, but closely monitor what is going on within the herd.

“Milk more cows and my bulk tank rises,” he shares. “But my costs will go up faster than my income. So, I would advise producers to start looking at things that can’t be measured a lot.”

There is no short answer on whether you can make overcrowding work for your dairy to benefit from a bigger milk check. The experts state there is no cookie-cutter answer, but the answer lies in good management and good animal husbandry skills.

Barn Layout Considerations:

Stalls are often used as a metric to measure overcrowding. Too many cows = not enough stalls. Often it is one of the other basics of animal housing that is not making overstocking work. Penn State Extension provides the following barn layout considerations.

Feed space. Total usable feed space divided by the number of cows in the pen gives inches per cow. The old standard used to be 24 inches per cow, however that can vary depending on the number of lactations an animal has had.

Feed access. Ideally, feed should be available 21+ hours per day and frequently pushed up, so it is within reach when a cow gets her chance at the bunk.

Freestall layouts. Some layouts, like the 3 row or 6 row barns, will have limited feed space even when the stall stocking density is held to 100%. The follow up question should be how many cows can eat at once and is fresh feed there?

Water availability. The easiest factor to evaluate is inches of water space per cow. Simply add up the accessible linear water space in the pen and divide by the number of animals in that pen. The goal is to be at 3 or more inches per animal in lactating groups. If the waterer space is too low, can extra waterers be added to the pen, or larger waterers be installed in place of smaller ones? The harder factor to evaluated is flow rate of water to the watering stations. To get a handle on that, you need to make some observations of the waterers during peak demand times such as right after cows return from milking or during parlor cleanup time.



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