Dollars Wisely Spent

October 3, 2011 12:41 PM
Dollars Wisely Spent

Don’t skimp on transition stalls, size

When building new facilities, capital is always finite. The last place to skimp, however, is on the transition barn.

The dollars you spend on each stall in this barn are multiplied seven to 15 times, because that’s the number of cows that cycle through these stalls each year.

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"The most expensive stall is a prefresh stall that is always full," says Ken Nordlund, a University of Wisconsin veterinarian specializing in transition cow management.

If that stall is always full, it suggests that during surges in calving, some close-up and fresh cows won’t have access to stalls. Plus, the feedbunk will become even more competitive and limiting. That only leads to trouble for the subsequent calving and lactation.

Nordlund’s analysis shows that the poorest transitioning cows have nearly 50% less chance of survival than well transitioning cows. Plus, the poorest transitioning cows produce nearly 24,000 lb. less cumulative milk than well transitioning cows. (Cumulative milk is simply the total milk produced in the lactation, regardless of the length of the lactation. Poorly transitioning cows are at greater risk of culling, and thus at greater risk of not completing the lactation.) These are huge numbers, and correcting them goes a long way toward paying for more and optimally sized stalls.

That assertion is based on research that Nordlund and his colleagues have done using DHIA records from more than 4,000 herds over two years. The result of that work is the Transition Cow Index (TCI), which shows the difference between first-test 305-day projected milk and the actual result.

The research shows that the worst transitioning herds have a TCI of 4,500 lb. per cow below expected production. The best transitioning herds are 3,500 lb. per cow above expectations. Ninety percent of herds fall in the –1,500 lb. per cow to +1,500 lb. per cow TCI range.

For every 1,000 lb. increase in TCI, the research suggests a 2.4% increase in survival rate and cows produce 1,300 lb. more cumulative milk.

Pens should be sized to provide stable social groups throughout the close-up period. PHOTO: Jim Dickrell

Transition facilities play a key role in how well dry cows calve and start lactation. Nordlund asserts that late-term pregnant, large-framed Holsteins have better transitions in sand-bedded freestalls that are approximately 52" wide and 9½' to 10' long (17' head-to-head).

To avoid constantly introducing new cows to the group, pens should be sized to provide stable social groups throughout the close-up period. And to avoid overcrowding during surges in calvings, transition pens should be sized 130% to 140% of the average number of calvings per week times the number of weeks spent in the pen. "In the West, where you have even greater heat stress and seasonal infertility, you need even greater overbuild," Nordlund says.

The numbers for a 1,000-cow herd work out to about $68,000 more for 42 additional and larger stalls (see table). This assumes a 40% overbuild in the three-week close-up group and a 30% overbuild in the three-week fresh pen.

On the plus side, Nordlund calculates returns based on the assumption that TCI will improve by 1,000 lb. If it does, turnover rate will be reduced by 2.4%. If replacements cost $1,500 and cull cows are worth $1,000, the replacement cost is $500. Multiplied by 2.4%, that’s a $12 per cow per year savings in turnover.

Increased milk yield will be 1,300 lb. for each 1,000-lb. improvement in TCI (which is based on 305-day projected milk). If milk is $15 per cwt. and income over feed cost (IOFC) is 50% of gross, that results in $97 per cow per year in increased IOFC.

Total returns of reduced turnover rate and improved milk production then equal $109 per cow per year.

To pay for the added stalls, Nordlund assumed the $68,400 cost would be amortized over five years at 10% interest. That results in an annual principal and interest payment of $26,400, or $26.40 per cow per year.

dollars dairy chart

If you compare increased income of $109 per cow per year to the $26.40 loan repayment, you net about $80 more per cow per year. And that’s for just a 1,000-lb. increase in TCI.

In reality, some herds will realize an even greater gain, Nordlund says. When you work those numbers through the spreadsheet, the net benefit of a properly sized transition barn jumps to $135 per cow per year.

There are some caveats, of course. The response partly depends on what the old facilities were like and how well done the new facilities are. Nordlund says the best response is seen in herds with minimal lameness. "Herds with higher than average lameness prevalence will experience a slower response," he notes.

Nevertheless, a good transition experience is absolutely essential to a successful lactation. "As an industry, we are undervaluing the cost of poor transition cow management," Nordlund says.

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