I had coffee with a bloke the other day who was a former dairy company director and a director of several corporate dairy farms. I tugged on his coat about the acceptance of production diseases. He called it “balance sheet farming”. Rampant pay outs and easy credit meant that in the board room you didn’t really have to worry about the cows themselves. But things have changed.
Historically, corporates never survived the down turns. Whereas, the family farm just pulled the belt in another couple of notches. But tightening the belt is not the only reason. The farming family was interested in their cows. Really interested. Why? Simply because the cows were also a part of the family. Intuitively, the family farmer considered their cows as individuals and knew how to get the best out of them. They anticipated and limited the effects of production diseases and as such avoided the significant costs of these diseases. This allowed them to achieve a greater degree of production efficiency – the key to profitability.
What constitutes efficiency? And, how do we get it? Measures of efficiency include conversion of feed to milk solids, reproductive efficiency (not only empty rate but also a compact calving), feed utilisation, number of heifer replacements, minimization of disease rates and herd weight management – there are others. Each of these elements are complicated in themselves but there are fundamental factors that tie all these issues together.
The only way to achieve efficiency is to identify and assess the risk factors, which accrue on each farm individually, that impact on a cow’s desire and ability to eat and utilise the energy most efficiently from that feed. The foundation (surprise surprise) is the mineral profile of the diet. For example, subclinical effects of milk fever (not only down cows) reduce cow appetite, not just in spring but throughout the lactation.
This complex disease is 90% a mineral problem and involves the interaction of every single one of the nine essential macro elements. Effective management of negative energy balance and weight control are inextricably tied to the four trace elements that are most often deficient; copper, cobalt, selenium and iodine. Mineral excesses such as sulphur, potassium and phosphorus are all too common and will directly reduce intakes and limit production. What’s your profile?
Manipulation of feed mineral profiles in order to remove barriers to intake and efficiency creates the basis of a strategic approach to fertiliser use, and a rational approach to both macro and trace mineral supplement selection and dose rate. No intervention to reduce the impact of production disease will be effective until some control is exerted over the mineral profile. This is the key to efficiency.
Balance sheet farming does not do justice to the cows largely because losses from inefficiency and disease don’t appear on the balance sheet. However, the costs are enormous. Now is the time for a fundamental reassessment of the drivers of profit in animal production. These are turbulent times but as F D Roosevelt said, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”.