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by Kevin Jones | Feb 23, 2016

There are so many numbers thrown around in the dairy industry to evaluate the performance of the herd. Of course, milk production is the most widely used indicator. It is easily available every day and is critical to the profitability of the dairy. However, it is my opinion that milk in the tank is the culmination of a large number of other indicators that are much more difficult to measure.

During times of tight margins and low profitability, keeping track of the numbers that affect the bottom line is critical to overall profitability. There are five key areas to evaluate continuously in order to ensure that performance is maximized: Transition, reproduction, udder health, culls, and other health should be evaluated on a weekly basis.

While all of these parameters play a key part in overall herd performance, transition sets the stage for the whole lactation. When a cow transitions poorly, it is very unlikely she will perform up to par with her herd mates and she is likely to be culled before completing the lactation. This is also the part of the lactation where nutrition plays an extremely large role. As the cow changes from the dry ration to the close-up ration to the fresh ration to the lactating ration, the nutritional balances of these rations are critical to smooth transitions between each. Once a cow is effortlessly transitioned to the high or lactating ration, the rest of the lactation is relatively simple.

So, how do we evaluate transition numbers to prove the effectiveness of our transition program? Going through the calving process in order of events, milk fever should easily be less than 1% with the technology we have today. Retained placenta should be less than 7%. Metris’s should be less than 8%. Displaced abomasum, which is usually secondary to another metabolic issue, should be under 1.5%. Ketosis should not be over 4% and mastitis at freshening should be less than 2%. All of these numbers are attainable and are being achieved by herds around the country.

One more critical component of transition evaluation is early culls. On some dairies metabolic problems aren’t reported, but are seen as early culls. Cows culled less than thirty days in milk should be under 2% of those calved. Sixty-day culls should average under 3%. If the metabolic issues are kept below the numbers above, these cull rates can be achieved. This saves more of your most profitable cows and allows culling of later lactation or poor performing herdmates.

Great transition builds a foundation for great reproduction. Repro numbers are more familiar to owners and managers than transition numbers. Great strides have been made in reproductive efficiency. Great repro leads to lower days in milk, lower culling rate and higher milk production. There are numerous herds achieving 30+ preg rates and 50% conception rates. Many of the best are achieving this with a traditional chalk and heat detection protocol. These should be the goals for all dairies.

Udder health is another key parameter to monitor. It can be monitored daily. SCC’s of around 100,000 or less are the most profitable and are very achievable. As the herd SCC count moves up to 150 or 200,000 2-3 lbs of milk are lost. SCC can be like a “silent killer”. With counts in the high 100s or over 200, mastitis might not seem to be an issue, but milk production suffers. Increasing SCCs are a sign that the immune system is kicking in to fight off bacteria. The immune system may in fact be successful in keeping clinical mastitis under control, but at an enormous cost energy wise. The loss in milk is real. Clinical mastitis cases should be kept at less than 2% of the herd per month.

We have talked about early culls and culling due to poor repro. Mastitis is also a big reason for culls. In most herds about 10% of the herd is culled annually for repro and 10% for mastitis. With great transition, great repro and great udder health cull rate can be lowered below 30% and in many cases as low as 25%. The implications on the bottom line are enormous—more heifers to sell or more culling of animals that are not performing.

Other health issues are the final piece to be monitored on a weekly basis. Lameness should be under 2% of the herd. Digestive and off-feed cows should be under 3% of the herd per month. Pneumonia can be kept under 1%.

By designing a reporting system that is weekly and shows trends over time, changes can be made in management practices and nutrition to keep performance at its highest level. I can’t close without revealing the influence conquering all these numbers has on milk production. There are herds achieving all of these goals in this article. If that can be accomplished 90 lbs. of energy-corrected milk is not only possible but is being achieved. These are non BST herds.

The really cool part of this, is that these results can be achieved with almost no expenditure of money. In fact, in most cases the vet and medicine costs will be greatly lowered. It is just a matter of adjusting and tweaking some management and nutrition.

If you would like help setting up these monitors, please contact me at

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