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Dairy Focus: Dare to Compare

A survey of 2,194 herds in 17 states looks at dairy cattle health and management.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

The fact that the dairy industry is struggling is not news.

In just three years, milk prices climbed from $12 per hundredweight (cwt) to more than $20 and fell back again to what has been the lowest in 30 years – under $10 per cwt. In the same time, corn, soybean and forage costs have escalated to all-time records. The net result has been financial dire straits for almost all dairy producers, especially those who purchase most of their feed ingredients.

During times like these, herd managers try to tweak every bit of efficiency out of their dairy enterprise. And judging by the continued supply of milk, they have been very good at production efficiency. But they don’t need long to realize that isn’t enough, and most managers wonder, “How do I compare with the rest of the industry?”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published findings from a survey on the health and management of dairy cattle in the United States. The report contains the summary from 2,194 herds in 17 states. Here are some of the findings:

  • About 20 percent of the herds were in the Western states and 80 percent in the Eastern states.
  • Almost half of the herd owners interviewed had fewer than 100 cows, and 22 percent had more than 500 cows.
  • The primary breed on 92 percent of the dairies was Holstein; in 3.5 percent, it was Jersey.
  • Forty-six percent of the herds used the Dairy Herd Improvement Association for individual animal recordkeeping, while 49 percent used some other method. Five percent kept no records on individual animals.
  • Only 13.6 percent of the herds had registered cattle.
  • Twenty-seven percent of the herds had a rolling herd average milk production of 22,000 pounds per cow or greater.
  • Days dry averaged 57.8, with little difference by herd size.
  • The calving interval averaged 13.2 months, with little difference by herd size.
  • The average age at first calving was 25.2 months, with the average lower for larger herds.
  • Some 6.5 percent of the calves were born dead or died within 48 hours of birth.
  • Eighty-three percent of the dairies vaccinated heifers for one or more diseases.
  • The primary housing type was about 23 percent tie stall/stanchion, 23 percent free stalls, 20 percent pasture and smaller percentages for various combinations.
  • Forty percent of the operations (but 78 percent of the cows) milked in some type of parlor.
  • Forty-two percent of the operations used a feed company nutritionist to balance feed rations.
  • Ninety-five percent of the operations used some preventive practice for cows. Providing vitamin A, D and E or selenium in feed and deworming were practiced most frequently.
  • Eighty-two percent of the operations used some type of vaccination for cows, with BVD, IBR, Lepto, BRSV and PI3 being used most frequently.
  • Thirty-four percent of herds were vaccinated for E. coli mastitis.
  • Producers identified cows with various health problems as follows: 16.5 percent with clinical mastitis, 14 percent with lameness, 12.9 percent with fertility problems, 7.8 percent with retained placenta and smaller percentages with other issues.
  • The percent of cows removed from herds was 26 percent for reproductive problems, 23 percent for mastitis and udder problems, 16 percent for poor production and 16 percent for lameness or injury.
  • The death loss in unweaned heifers was 7.8 percent. For weaned heifers, it was 1.8 percent. For cows, it was 5.7 percent.
  • In 94 percent of the operations, at least one other species of animal had contact with the cattle and/or feed, mineral or water supply, which is a biosecurity risk.
  • About 39 percent of the operations brought some type of cattle onto the farm during the year.
  • The percent of cattle brought on the farm that were quarantined were 44 percent of unweaned calves, 23 percent of weaned unbred heifers, 14.5 percent of bred heifers, 12 percent of lactating cows and 16 percent of dry cows, which could pose a biosecurity risk.
  • For operations that brought animals onto the farm, only 47 percent required some type of vaccination before bringing the animal onto the farm, which was another a biosecurity risk.
  • Only 23 percent of the operations that brought animals onto the farm required some type of disease testing before bringing the animal onto the farm, which could be a biosecurity risk.
  • Only 11.7 percent of the operations that brought animals onto the farm tested for contagious mastitis pathogens before bringing the animal onto the farm, which also was a biosecurity risk.

How do you compare?

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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