We arrived at Larson Acres farm on a damp windy Wisconsin morning, unaware that what we were about to see could change our perception of attention to detail forever.
At the door we were greeted by an elderly gentlemen by the name of Wendell Larson, whose two sons and daughter now manage the 2,400 head herd, averaging 54kg of milk and with a replacement rate of 26%. Through one of the two rapid exit milking parlours the cows are milked three times daily, where 50lb of milk per milking is the norm. In awe of this amazing performance Wendell is quick to point out that it is not down to what is in the bunk but solely to do with transition management, fertility, and attention to detail. “Keep your days in milk at 170 and your cows healthy, and the milk will come” said Wendell. It is something we all know, yet fail to unlock its power when our attention to detail in other aspects of the system fail to meet the required standard.
With regards to transition, no Goldilocks(1) dry cow diet here; simply one 45 days dry cow group fed 50:50 maize and grass silage, with a protein and anionic supplement premix and 2kg of straw. Dry cows are stocked at 85% in sand stalls up to the point of calving, at which time they are transferred to a calving pen and then on to a fresh cow group, again stocked at 85%. From the fresh cow group, the cows can be allocated to any group of cows since all cows are fed the exact same diet from calving to drying off. Fertility is so well managed and milk production so high that cows do not go over fat. In fact the farm only feeds two different diets to the herd; dry and lactating. On the day of our visit only two cows out of the 1,248 in the cross-ventilated barn were in the sick pen. Effective transition and fresh cow management was helping this herd achieve a staggering 75% conception rate to first service.
Attention to detail was everywhere; forages were sent away for analysis every Monday and the feeder was responsible for ensuring that the computer controlling the feeder waggon always had the correct value for the forage dry matter. This ensured that feed delivery and the quantity of refusals was maintained consistently during the day, every day. All this ensured that the cows achieved exceptional dry matter intakes. Milking cows achieved a DMI of 4.18% of bodyweight and dry cows 2.2% of bodyweight.
Good cow comfort was easily achieved in the crossventilated barn which housed 1,250 cows. The fans along the one side of the wall ran continuously, providing effective air exchange and keeping air quality optimal. In summer the clean air entering the barn did so through a fine network of water chilled fins that cooled the air as it entered the building. Minimising environmental stress was key to maintaining excellent fertility and a consistent 170 DMI.
Heifers calved in at around 600kg at 22 months having been fed a TMR ration from four months of age. It was not uncommon to have heifers peaking at 50-60kg of milk in their first lactation. The calf rearing barn was a series of pens and stalls which housed the heifers from weaning until they were pregnant. The first thing that was apparent in this barn was the consistency in the size of the heifers in each group and the absence of any coughing heifers.
Out of all the things that amazed me the most and really got me excited was the management’s approach to staff. Wendell described how his sons had embarked on a course in human psychology, as they understood from a very early stage of
the farm’s development that achieving the performance they required would only be achieved if the staff were trained, motivated, and felt as if they were an integral part of the team. How often do we think in terms of a bottom-up and top-down approach to managing and decision making on our farms? At the end of the day success is reliant on our staff buying in to and executing what we want to achieve. Without that, any top-down initiatives are dead in the water,
causing frustration and friction between management and staff. When staff are involved and included in decision making and feel that the management are receptive to their ideas, thoughts and concerns – and that these are used to mould future policies – they are more likely to help ensure that initiatives are delivered successfully. Wendell was quick to point out that staff were integral in developing the standard operating procedures that ensured the herd was managed consistently in every aspect. Their participation ensured instant compliance.
Having reflected on the experience, my advice to anyone serious about embarking on a journey of performance improvement in their herd, is that no matter what the system, attention to detail is key in everything that we do but taking the staff, nutritionist and veterinarian willingly on the journey with you is essential to success.