In dairy farming, some things change, some don’t

As you look around the area at farms, some changes from times past are evident even from the road.

Rarely do we see dairy cows in pastures anymore, barns have become much bigger and are more open than ever. Equipment has mushroomed into big things that take up more than half the road.

Those are things we can readily see, but, if you were to get to know the farming operations better, you would discover that much more has changed. For example, technology impacts about every area of farming.

Computers in tractors enable the mapping the fields by nutrient levels and yields and can adjust inputs according to those results. Drones have the ability to watch over crops as they grow and provide information for intervention. Monitors on the neck chains of cows, or as an ear tag, can track the time cows spend ruminating, body temperature and physical activity and then check those measures against recent history to detect when animals differ from usual and therefore, are likely to be in heat or sick.

However, not all changes are chosen by producers. Milk price at the farm level is reduced by a third. Even beef prices for cattle sold are down from the highs that we saw a few months ago. These changes require adjustments. Better managers make those adjustments sooner and they do so while recognizing the things that do not change.

It would be easy to justify cutting feed costs by a similar proportion, but cows require a feed ration balanced for intake of fiber, energy, protein, minerals and vitamins to maintain health and production. Likewise, it would be easy to reduce milking frequency back to two times a day, but we can’t afford to give up milk production because it is the primary income stream.

Disease prevention practices, such as vaccinations, and good animal care can’t be reduced because of their costs. You see, we cannot change the needs of the cow, and we cannot short-change basic foundational practices to maintain healthy animals.

Managers are faced with making adjustments to salvage cash flow without hurting the long-term performance of the cows. While there may be a few opportunities to cut costs without much pain, most decisions have greater risk, and sometimes the way through times like this is to invest money to make the operation more efficient. Conversely, it may be to make major changes in management to reduce structural costs without giving up milk production.

Dairy production takes complex management that examines not only the cows and fields, but also the economic, regulatory and social environmental in which dairies operate. Difficult decisions must be made to survive short-term and thrive long-term. As producers make those decisions, they do so without changing their commitment to provide high quality food for your and your family.

If you have questions about dairy production, please contact me. The mandate of Michigan State University Extension is to apply education to solve problems, meet needs and create opportunities.

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