Technology aids US dairy performance

Computerised breeding programmes are helping large US herds achieve uniformity in replacement heifers, an essential element in an industry that is seeing most growth in herds of 3000 cows or more.

Brian Bolton, ex-UK dairy producer and now president of Allflex (USA), said running a big herd required a shift in attitude. “You get to a point where you stop managing cows and begin managing people, with one man for every 100 cows and 30 staff for a 3000-cow herd.

“In many states the workforce is mainly Hispanic. Herds working well have owners and operators that adapt to the workforce rather than the other way round.”

Total US dairy population was staticat about 9m cows, but that masked the fall in herd numbers, down to about 70,000. While small family units still existed, many operations were large. “If we look at average costs of production it suggests that 250-cow herds are the break-even.

“Larger units concentrate where politics make the economic climate viable. Establishing a large herd near an urban population can meet with opposition lobbying organisations have considerable power.”

Individually, producers had little chance to influence farm gate prices, with 95% of milk sold through co-ops. Small price premiums could be secured for high volume producers, allowing dairies to make savings on haulage. “Producers can manage risk by locking into forward contracts. That can give security, but the sector is still exposed to the influence of export markets. These account for 12-15% of turnover for the US dairy sector, but that is expected to fall to 8% in 2009.”

Technology features in many areas. For example, sexed semen has been adopted by many large outfits although a backlash has been recorded where an effect on fertility has been seen.

“We also see use of electronic identification. One man can walk downa line of cows in [feed] headlocks using an electronic reader to see which animals need attention. A vet at the rear of the cow line can then treat, vaccinate or PD-check the animal. Records can be updated immediately on a hand-held screen.”

Electronic identification highlights animals needing attention.