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Older Cows Pay More Bills

Taylor Leach

Take one look at your operating expense sheet and you will most likely find that the cost of raising replacement animals is near the top. Typically falling behind feed and labor costs, replacement expenses usually rank as the third most costly area on the farm. But what if that cost could be reduced thanks to the help of longer living animals?

During the 2020 Leading Dairy Producers Conference held in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., Dan Weigel, director of outcome research for Zoetis, stressed on the importance of longevity and lifetime profitability within the dairy herd. 

“The average cow leaves the herd between her second and third lactation,” Weigel says. “So, if we could extend that out by at least another six months, she could have the potential to reach her peak productivity typically achieved during the fourth lactation. The idea of having an older herd not only helps improve the amount of milk your farm produces, but it can also help you reduce the amount of replacement animals needed and improve some of your culling decisions.”

In order to achieve a longer living herd, Daryl Kleinschmit, a dairy research nutritionist at Zinpro Corporation, suggests analyzing calf management tactics to maximize heifer lifetime performance and improve her lifetime profitability in the milking herd.

“It’s important to minimize health threats and health events throughout the lifetime [of your replacements],” Kleinschmit says. “We want to maximize the development of these heifers, thereby improving their performance and profitability for the dairy.”

According to Kleinschmit, it takes on average two lactations before an animal starts to bring in a return on investment. 

“If you took a group of heifers today, how many of them will make it to their second, third or forth lactations?” Kleinschmit asks. “On average, less than 50% of heifers that go through the herd will actually get to the point where they have paid for themselves. So, we’re expecting the cows who do make it past their second lactation to not just pay for themselves, but to also lift the heavy load of those animals who did notmake it.”

But how does one select for longer living animals? According to Weigel, the use of genomics has proven to be a valuable tool.

“Genomics can show you that some of these two-year-olds are going to leave the herd pretty early,” Weigel says. “They have poor longevity genetics and some have poor health traits. Reproduction is now better than ever, so [it] is no longer the number one reason why animals are leaving the herd. Mastitis is. Using genomic technology, producers can now better select for these traits, including productive life traits.”

However, just selecting for certain health traits will not guarantee longer living animals. According to Klienschmit, producers also have to focus on the care of their replacement animals to help ensure a longer productive life.  

“Factors such as heifer lameness, colostrum quality and adequate nutrition all affect the animal’s performance as they transition from calves to heifers to cows,” Klienschmit says. “Our objective on our farms is for dairy heifers to start out right so they can achieve higher levels of milk production and to also improve the longevity of our animals. Why? Because older cows are more profitable. They make more milk and they pay for themselves. Those are the girls we want to keep around for as long as economically feasible. Older cows are the ones who are paying the bills.”



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