Change can be good. In fact, it can be very good.
It’s not that the cows at Baier Creek Dairy, Elmwood, Wis., were sluffing off. A year ago, their average peak milk was 109 lb. Their tank average hovered just less than 85 lb., and their herd average was rolling at 30,000 lb.
But come calving, milk fevers and displaced abomasums (DAs) were, for a period this past winter, a daily occurrence. Charlie Baier and his son, Trevor, who farm with Charlie’s brother, Rod, and his son, Steve, were growing increasingly frustrated.
They suspected the ration, and frequent ration changes, were the culprit. But they wouldn’t know until they tried something different. At the first of the year, they did.
“During January, we still were seeing one or two DAs per week,” Trevor says. But within a month of changing rations, the DAs and milk fevers disappeared, and they haven’t returned.
The change, Charlie says, has been remarkable. Working with fresh cows is now a joy, he says, not drudgery—farming is fun again.
The Baiers say the new transition cow diet made all the difference. Prior to the change, they were feeding a far-off dry cow diet that was mostly alfalfa haylage. Then, two weeks prior to calving, cows were brought in to a pre-fresh group and fed a ration that was 70% alfalfa haylage, 30% corn silage, topped off with 1 to 1½ lb. of anionic salts and a dry cow pack. A few days prior to calving, there were moved to maturnity pens and given yet another ration.
In January, they switched to a single ration. It consists of 45 lb. of brown mid-rib (BMR) corn silage, 5¾ lb. of wheat straw, just 2.7 lb. of alfalfa haylage and 4 lb. of soybean meal. Anionic salts are no longer fed.
“We feed this all the way through the dry period, and cows in the fresh pen receive a very similar diet with plenty of straw for easy transitioning. We have not had a milk fever since January,” Charlie says.
Before the ration change, cows were in the fresh pen for at least 20 days as they recovered from the trauma of calving, DAs and milk fever. “Now we’re moving them to the lactation pen at 10 to 12 days because they’re doing so well. They’re transitioning well from calving, intakes are up and milk production is showing it,” Trevor says.
Once in the lactation pen, they get a diet heavy in forage: almost 50 lb. of BMR corn silage, 33 lb. of haylage and 1½ lb. of wheat straw. For energy and protein, they get 9 lb. of high moisture corn, 3½ lb. of a molasses product, 1 lb. of fat and 4¼ lb. soybean meal.
“The molasses product binds it all together and doesn’t allow cows to sort as much,” Trevor says.
Charlie believes well-fermented BMR corn silage is key. “You probably lose 4 lb. to 5 lb. of milk if you feed fresh corn silage,” he says.
But given the size of their bunkers, the Baiers used to only be able to allow corn silage to ferment for just a month before feeding. This past summer, they built another bunker so they’ll have enough inventory
to ferment silage 60 to 90 days prior to feeding.
Upgraded cow housing has also played an important role in cow performance. In 2009, they built a tunnel-ventilated, sand-bedded freestall barn for 310 cows. It’s a four-row, four-group barn that the Baiers don’t overcrowd. “One cow, one stall” is their mantra.
Since building it, their daily tank average has climbed 10 lb. per cow, and their rolling herd average has shot up more than 2,500 lb.
Just as important, somatic cell counts (SCC) have dropped out of site. Before the new barn, the Baiers lived with SCC of 350,000 cells per mL and sometimes struggled to keep counts below 400,000 cells per mL. Now, they cruise along at 65,000 to 70,000 cells per mL.
“The milk quality premiums are $8,000 per month,” Charlie says. That makes a big difference in cash flow, he says. And low cell counts mean fewer clinical cases, less antibiotic use and more milk sold.
A year ago in September, the Baiers built a tunnel-ventilated, 80-cow transition barn. “Now, cows spend their full transition period on sand,” Charlie says.
The combined effects of all of these changes has resulted in a nearly 1,200-lb. change in the Baiers’ Transition Cow Index (TCI) (see sidebar). The Baiers TCI bottomed in March 2014 at -667 lb. By July 2015, it had rebounded to 511, or an increase of 1,178 lb. Their actual rolling herd average is up 1,500 lb. in those 15 months, or exactly what the TCI equation predicts.
Change is good. In fact, change is very good.