Navigating the Dairy Industry


Here’s how farmers plow forward to improve their dairy business.

With more than 9 million dairy cows in this country, the U.S. dairy industry continues to produce more milk each year, now exceeding 20 billion gallons of milk annually. Roughly three-fourths is manufactured into powder, cheese, butter, yogurt, and other soft products. Consumption of fluid milk continues to decline as it must compete in the marketplace with other beverages such as soft drinks, juices, energy and protein drinks, and water. There is no self-regulation within the industry to balance supply with demand. Attempts at supply management programs are mostly met with disdain.

Despite a continuing drop in the per capita consumption of fluid milk, Americans are consuming more yogurt, cheese and ice cream, which has resulted in a 20 percent per capita increase in consumption of all dairy products during the past 40 years. During that same time period, however, milk production in the U.S. has increased more than 60 percent – from around 130 billion pounds to more than 212 billion in 2016.

A look at trends

Domestically, the dairy industry continues to produce far more milk than can be consumed. In the past decade, our dairy industry has been able to aggressively tap into the international markets, which has kept the milk price from completely crashing. In 2014, dairy farmers were paid record-setting prices due to expanding export sales. However, as recently as 2015, exports to China, our largest export customer, lagged due to a slowdown in their economy, resulting in a significant decrease in U.S. milk prices from the previous year. Economics and weather conditions in the southern hemisphere also contributed to the price volatility over that short period of time.

At the beginning of 2017, exports are recovering and the U.S. Dairy Export Council reports that about 14 percent of the milk produced in the U.S. is now going to exports, which is equivalent to one day per week of milk production. Around the world, a growing middle class is consuming more dairy products as their standard of living improves. However, although the extra demand for U.S. dairy products has helped buoy milk prices, the U.S. dairy producer must still remain competitive in what is a very competitive world market for dairy products.

Back in the U.S., the negative publicity regarding saturated fats found in dairy products is showing signs of relinquishing. Recent research is showing that milk fat is not the troublemaker it was purported to be for so many years. Butter sales have improved during 2016, and cheese and yogurt consumption continue to grow and lead the dairy categories. Still the industry walks a very precarious line between supply and demand when only a small swing of 1 to 2 percent movement of over-supply takes several dollars per hundred-weight away from the dairy farmer.

Dairy farms in the Northeast U.S. find themselves at an even greater disadvantage with higher operating costs in one of the most densely populated regions of the country. Conventional economic theory suggests that in a region where supply lags behind demand, prices should be higher. According to Economist Bob Wellington, the prices received by New England dairy farmers have little to do with the supply of milk produced in the region relative to the demand by the consumer.

Milk pricing throughout the country is complex, with 10 Federal Marketing Orders dictating the prices paid to the majority of dairy farms. In addition, California has its own milk pricing order that has been putting cheaper dairy products into the marketplace. Prices for milk are set based on regular surveys by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of manufactured dairy products – cheese, butter, powdered milk and whey – as they are traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Local supply and demand has no bearing on what dairy farmers in New England are paid for their milk. Ironically, the swell in the popularity of yogurt and cheese has actually decreased the price paid to dairy farmers.

During the past two decades, milk pricing has been a roller coaster ride for the U.S. dairy farmer, with as many years of prices being below the cost of production as above. As a result, dairy farms continue to go out of business at an average rate of more than 4 percent per year. More than 40,000 dairy farms have exited the industry since 2000 – a total decline of more than 50 percent. Ironically, total cow numbers have remained nearly the same, meaning the dairy farms that remain today are milking more cows and those cows are producing more milk over their lifetime.

The trend is likely to continue and for the foreseeable future there will be more periods with milk prices unable to cover operating costs. Dairy farmers who are paid the federally mandated milk prices face an uphill battle as they strive to maintain optimal milk production and keep their cows healthy while, at the same time, continually looking for ways to produce milk more cheaply.

Alternative solutions

Simply put, in light of nonexistent supply management and unpredictable volatility, the only way dairy farms can remain in business today is to either milk more cows, thereby improving efficiencies through greater economies of scale and lowering the cost per unit of output, or find niche markets that allow them to increase revenues through value-added marketing – or a combination of the two. Dairy farmers must be aware that making changes will likely come with a price tag and must be carefully considered, because the changes made today will probably affect their financial well-being for years to come.

Throughout the Northeast, dairy farmers have been faced with the question for many years of how to keep their businesses from failing in a volatile economic environment. All dairy farmers must face the reality of a difficult situation and assess if they have what it takes to keep milking cows – and be willing to make the inevitable changes that will need to be made. The decisions they make must be based on their individual talents and personal preferences of what they are willing or not willing to do.

In South Hadley, Massachusetts, Steve McCray decided he had to make the investment in processing his own milk in an effort to keep the dairy from failing. McCray’s father, Don, began the dairy at that location in 1955. Steve took over the operation when Don passed away in 2005. After the disastrous year of 2009 and knowing that relying on federal milk pricing was likely to put the dairy out of business, Steve began planning in earnest to process and market the milk produced by his 50 cows.

This was not the McCray family’s first venture into value-added – they had been making ice cream and selling it at their farm stand since the 1980s. The McCray dairy is one of the earliest dairies in the region to delve into agritourism as a way to supplement farm income. Today, along with the free petting zoo for children of all ages, their country-style storefront houses a small diner and bakery. Just outside is a miniature golf course open during the summer months and they also hold various farm-related events throughout the year – encouraging the non-ag public to learn about farming.

McCray began bottling his milk in the summer of 2013 and today about 75 percent of the milk he produces is processed and sold through a distributor, 10 percent of the milk is retailed out of the store with the remainder going to the regional handler for the milk-order price. He says it was a good move and that he’s making more money than if he’d continued selling it all through the marketing order. Only just a few years in, McCray is optimistic about future growth potential with his location in central Massachusetts.

Currently at a national average of over 220 cows per herd, the average herd size across the country has more than tripled over the past quartercentury with the majority of the expansion happening in the western portion of the U.S. lending organization Farm Credit East, in its 2015 Dairy Herd Summary, tabulated financial data for 487 dairies in New York and New England. Of those 487 dairies, 78 milked 700 cows or more with the average herd size well over 1,000 cows. Herds milking less than 300 cows represented about 50 percent of the survey — meaning there are still many more smaller and midsize herds in the Northeast compared with thousand-cow herds. But each year a steady number of smaller herds continue to exit the industry.

Although the herd size of a dairy farm — whether it milks 100 cows or 1,000 cows — offers no guarantee as to whether the dairy farm remains successful year after year, the long-term trend is for herds to continually grow larger in order to stay in business. Largersize dairy herds sell more milk per cow and sell more milk per laborer (greater labor efficiency), resulting in greater net earnings per cow. They have fewer assets per cow with a greater asset turnover resulting in a significantly greater return on assets.

Ironically, for herds in the Northeast during 2015, herds with 100 to 300 cows — that group which contains the average herd size in the U.S. — had both negative earnings per cow and negative return on assets, while both smaller and larger herd sizes fared better.

However, the Farm Credit East summary noted that being large is no guarantee of profitability. Only 20 percent of the 78 large farms were in the top profit group for 2015.

As the U.S. dairy industry continues to struggle with volatility and a chronic over-supply of milk, paying close attention to debt per cow and cash flow and continually looking for niche markets that may offer revenue-increasing opportunities will be critical to staying in business during the next few years.

Enter robotics

Another challenge that all dairy farms eventually have to face is replacing aging equipment. Building dairy farms has never been inexpensive, but over the past couple of decades as profit margins spend more time on the low side, taking the steps to replace old barns and invest in new technology becomes more difficult to afford. In Hinsdale, New Hampshire, Beth Hodge and her family at Echo Farm began milking Jerseys and Shorthorns in the mid-1990s. After more than 20 years in a small parlor that had been built with used equipment, it was time to make some changes.

Doing her homework, Hodge found that the cost of upgrading her conventional milking parlor and barn would cost about the same as purchasing a robotic milking system; return on investment for either choice was equal. The family chose a robotic milking unit manufactured by Lely, an agricultural equipment company based in The Netherlands and well established throughout New England. While proudly showing off the robotic milker that went into action in November 2016, she says there’s no question they made the right decision in going with the new technology.

Hodge shares that one of the biggest challenges with a dairy herd of 100 cows was scheduling labor and trying to accommodate everyone’s needs – family and hired help – for days off and personal and family time and still get all the work done seven days a week. It’s a challenge faced by all dairy farms – big and small. For Echo Farm, even though the robot is milking cows nearly all day long and the equipment needs to be monitored frequently, having the twice-a-day milking routine go away has freed up a lot of time for everyone. That time can now be used to focus on the other half of the Echo Farm business – pudding.

The Hodges, too, saw the writing on the wall many years ago that they couldn’t expect the business to survive with the milk coming from 100 cows and a milk price that was never going to be dependable. Starting in 1997, the family saw an opportunity for marketing puddings made from their milk. Today, about 25 percent of the milk produced is being processed at the farm to make a multitude of flavored puddings that are sold throughout the state of New York and New England in stores and schools.

According to Hodge, in recent years the family found themselves getting bogged down on the production side as they struggled with rising production costs knowing that they needed to improve labor and production efficiencies. Investing in the new technology has helped everyone at Echo Farm renew their focus on growing the pudding business while still being able to have time for growing families and personal time. By the beginning of spring 2017, just four months with the robotics in place, Hodge says that they’re still working through the learning curve with the new equipment, commenting that Lely’s technical support is outstanding. Hodge has reluctantly had to trim her herd from 100 cows down to 60 to 65 cows to get all the cows through the robot twice per day.

Dairy farms that pursue the value-added business model generally have smaller herds and have the time to attend to processing – whether it be pasteurizing and bottling milk or making cheese, yogurt or pudding – and marketing of their products. Revenue generated per cow is going to be higher but labor and asset efficiencies tend to be on the low side with smaller herds. As an example, a dairy milking 100 cows with a 70-pound average will produce about 2.5 million pounds of milk per year. Considering that any size dairy needs several full-time employees to get all the work done – a dairy that produces less than 4 million pounds of milk per year will fall short of the recommended minimum benchmark of 1 million pounds of milk per year for each full-time employee. Investing in robotics is a step in the right direction to help increase labor efficiencies on dairy farms. Other capital assets are similar. The milking parlor, for example, that’s built for a smaller herd is usually underused and represents a less-than-efficient use of capital.

Bigger producers

Herein lies some of the justification for larger-size dairy herds. Costs for labor, equipment and leveraging of financial risk are spread out over many more millions of pounds of milk per year, resulting in greater economies of scale. Even though there’s an increasing number of smaller herds moving toward the value-added business model with on-farm processing and private label branding of products, the long-term trend in the industry continues to favor the move toward expansion to large herds. However, in either case, expanding herd size or investing in processing and marketing almost always requires taking on more debt. In a very competitive economic environment, it takes a special effort and willingness for dairy farmers to spend the money to expand or create their own brand and go head to head against the well-established dairy marketing giants.

How to Maximize Potential with Genetics and Milk


Selecting animals for breeding, no matter how it’s done, has lasting impacts on herd performance.

Dairy farmers are often focused on herd genetics. Each has its own priority criteria, such as milk output, milk components, good legs and hocks, size and build, grazing ability, somatic cell score, fertility or calving ease. Depending on the farm’s management system, different traits may be valued more or less than others. Thus the genetic merit of traits will differ, depending on farm goals and management practices.

“For conventional dairy, farmers are looking at fertility and longevity, as well as somatic cell score,” said Bradley Heins, associate professor, Organic Dairy Management, West Central Research and Outreach Center, University of Minnesota. Heins’ area of expertise is animal genetics in conventional and grazing dairy herds.

“A grazing dairy looks at the same traits of fertility, longevity and somatic cell score. However, they also add in smaller body size and may look at other minor traits such as A2 or kappa casein,” he said. “Smaller cows tend to have less health problems, and have [a] longer productive life. Larger cows tend not to do well in grazing situations with all of the walking. Most graziers prefer to handle smaller cows because of management and they possibly may consume less feed and be more feed efficient.”

The cow’s phenotype, or outward expression of genes, is dependent not only on its raw genetic material but also on the environment in which it is raised, which can influence overall performance positively or negatively. Knowing what factors play a role in maximizing herd performance – no matter the genetics – can increase dairy profitability. This combination of genetics and environmental influence has economic implications on every dairy.

Selecting traits

Milk production of dairy cows has increased substantially in recent decades. Some of the change is due to improved facilities and management, leading to better cow comfort and health. Artificial insemination (AI), coupled with the ability to determine the genetic makeup of sires and the likely expression of selected genetic traits in the next generations, has also contributed to high production cows.

Various traits have differences in heritability. Heritability measures the probability that a given trait is passed on through the genes, from one generation to its offspring. Heritability varies from trait to trait, and heritability of traits can vary between breeds. The heritability of some traits is linked.

Heritability is a tool used to determine how closely an animal’s phenotype – or performance – is actually due to genetic merit, and how much is influenced by nongenetic factors. Heritability of 0.40 is considered high, indicating that the expression of the trait is likely to be passed along via the genes and that 40 percent of the differences seen in the trait between animals is due to genetics. The remaining 60 percent of the difference is due to environment and management factors. Low heritability, of 0.15 or less, indicates that the trait in question is not very likely to be passed to its offspring.

As per the Virginia Cooperative Extension publication, “Using Heritability for Genetic Improvement:”

Specifically, heritability is the percentage of all differences between animals that is caused by gene effects that transfer from generation to generation. The percentage that remains is not caused by transmissible genetic effects. Often, environmental effects are an important part of the remainder.

The percentage of protein and fat in milk tend to be the two most heritable traits, along with animal stature. Others, such as rate of mastitis or ketosis, daughter fertility or longevity are of low heritability, and thus the environment plays a significant role in their expression. But even low heritability traits can be selected for over time, and consistent selection of those traits of importance to the dairy will slowly increase their presence in the phenotype of the herd.

Performance records are kept on sires by each breed organization. Sire summaries combine several dozen traits, analyzed from an AI bull and its multiple offspring, and determine the likelihood that those traits, alone and in combination, will be passed onto its progeny. Producers using AI have an extensive record of sire genetics to use for breeding purposes. This information allows for selection of the traits deemed most important to herd performance.

But not all dairy farmers use AI. Many dairy farmers use natural service breeding and primarily rely on phenotype observations to select traits and improve their herds.

“Only about 50 percent of dairymen use AI,” Heins said. “In the grazing world, it is much lower. I am not all that in favor of breeding naturally, but I would watch for temperament of the bull, body size (smaller is better) and calving ease.”

Not just milk

Daughter calving ease, service sire calving ease, daughter fertility, udder characteristics or body condition score are just a few of the many traits that can be of importance in a dairy herd. Indicators of health status, reproductive capabilities and longevity are generally not as heritable as milk output. As farmers began to select for traits using genotype, milk output was often targeted due to immediate economic benefits. But selecting for high milk production often comes at a cost.

“There is an antagonistic relationship between milk and fertility. By selecting for increased milk production, we are selecting for reduced fertility in cows,” Heins said. “There is also a thought that if we select for larger cow body size, we will get more production. This is actually not true.”

High milk cows tend to have reduced fertility and an increase in health concerns. These lead to a shorter productive life and can negate the benefit of more milk, Heins said, referring to a University of Minnesota study. This study, spanning 40 years, showed a longer lifespan for medium-framed cows, as well as the same milk production as larger-framed cows.

As cows become increasingly inbred, the negative results of trait selection – such as for high milk – can cause complications. For Holsteins, reproductive issues have become more common and problematic. Holstein genetic selection has led to larger cow size, environmental issues related to cow comfort, as cows outgrow stall size and barns become crowded, which detracts from any inherent genetic potential of the selected traits.

Peter Mapstone, Pastureland Dairy, Manlius, New York, inherited a high-production Holstein herd. Finding himself with a major labor shortage soon after taking over the dairy, he began immediately grazing these confinement cows. Realizing that pure Holsteins were no match for grass-based dairying, he crossed with Jerseys with good results on the first-generation cows, an effect known as hybrid vigor. He’s bred in other genetics since then, and began crossing back to Holstein. Jersey genetics will again be bred into the herd, for a new generation of primarily Holstein-Jersey crosses.

Speaking at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s (NOFA-NY) annual Dairy and Field Crop Conference in 2016, Mapstone said that selecting for the high production of that purebred Holstein herd wasn’t the most profitable approach to dairy farming. Ketosis issues, the cost of feeding a high-grain diet and injuries to the cows negated the benefit of more milk per cow output.

“Dairy farmers tend not to think over the lifetime of the cow. They try to get as much milk out of the cows today. Selecting for improved fertility and health of cows will actually be more profitable in the long run than selection for milk,” Heins said. “A farmer should select for net merit (NM$), an index that combines production, fertility, productive life, functional type and calving ability. This is probably the most appropriate index to improve profit of dairy farms.”

The NM$ is computed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and reflects relevant economic factors affecting dairy profitability. The index assists dairy farmers in weighing economically important traits when selecting herd genetics. Traits can be used to select for income or to reduce expenses. More information on using the index, as well as on other indicators that can be used to enhance herd performance, can be found here by searching “genetic improvement programs.”

Nongenetic factors

No matter how great your herd genetics, and how well-suited for your farm they may be, environmental factors have a major impact on any inherent genetic potential. If your cows aren’t comfortable and healthy, their genetic potential is compromised. A cow’s genetic potential for performance is also compromised by herd management practices.

Uncomfortable, stressed cows – due to overcrowding, stall size, improper diet or too little time for resting and rumination – are not performing optimally, no matter their genetics. Stressors such as these require the cow to focus on survival and not on maximizing normal functioning, such as milk output and reproduction.

Spending energy to compensate for environmental concerns, such as inadequate ventilation and heat or cold stress, means that cows don’t have the energy to perform their best, either. Immune system challenges due to poor nutrition, injury or respiratory and mastitis concerns, all of which can be caused by facility design and or management practices, take away from performance, no matter how optimized the genetic merit of the herd.

Dr. Jen Burton, also speaking at the NOFA-NY conference, explained that immunity and reproductive ability are heritable traits, and both require great energy from the cow. If an immune response is needed, the cow will have to switch off the reproductive response. Keeping cows comfortable and healthy means less immune response and more reproduction capability.

Health concerns limit lifetime milk. And it isn’t just lactating cows that suffer from poor health or nutrition impacts. Heifer nutrition deficits will impact that cow’s production during first lactation, if not longer. Calves and heifers that have experienced immune challenges such as respiratory disease will never live up to their ultimate genetic potential.

“Cow comfort can make a huge impact on reducing profit and milk production, as well as increasing the likelihood of health problems, culling and or mortality,” Heins said. “Nutrition can limit high milk output. If cows are not fed properly and to their requirements, we can see losses in milk.”

Heat stress in dry cows can cause lifetime drops in milk production for both the dry cows and their calves. Calves born to mothers experiencing heat stress in the last two months of gestation see their lifetime milk production decrease significantly, with heat stress having “major effects on the calf,” and a lifetime impact of 10 pounds per day of decreased milk output, said Dr. Albert De Vries, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Florida. In the Northeast, over 100 pounds of milk per cow are lost each year due to “milk not being made if dry cows are not cooled. It is basically profitable to cool dry cows anywhere except Alaska.”

Competition for resources such as lying time in stalls or access to feed occurs with overstocking. In the Northeast, dairy overstocking is commonplace. Overstocking stresses the cows beyond whatever environmental stress response they would have had if the barn was not crowded, and amplifies it.

Getting more milk in the bulk tank doesn’t necessarily require the best high-production genetics, or adding cows and overcrowding facilities. Changes in management can increase milk output without making genetic changes. And management changes can happen now with the cows you have. Optimizing cow comfort and welfare through facility design and animal management, selecting traits – high and low heritability – that match the needs of your dairy farming practices, and remembering that lifetime profitability has to do with more than high milk output, can bring about the best results for your dairy’s profitability now and in the future.

“I think that dairy producers and industry people focus too much on milk production,” Heins said. “Yes, milk production pays the bills, but there are other benefits that are hard to measure on dairies. If dairymen actually tracked costs for health treatments, fertility and other things related to cow health, they may find that selection for milk production may not be what it is all cracked up to be.”

Read more: Juggling Responsibilities While Managing the Herd

Maintaining a Healthy Rumen with Microbes

dairy cow grazing

What makes a rumen healthy are the billions of microbes – bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and yeasts – whose job it is to ferment the feedstuffs that a cow consumes in her diet. Collectively, we call them “bugs.”

Feeding a dairy cow is first about maintaining a healthy rumen. If the rumen isn’t working efficiently, the cow will neither be feeling her best or able to produce the milk we expect from her. What makes a rumen healthy are the billions of microbes – bacteria, protozoa, fungi and yeasts – whose job it is to ferment the feedstuffs that a cow consumes in her diet. Collectively, we call them “bugs.” The rumen bugs also have their own life cycle and nutritional requirements. As they expire they become a major source of the cow’s metabolizable protein.

The ruminant species that includes not only dairy cows, but goats, sheep, deer, moose, llamas and alpacas, has been created for the purpose of using, for much of their diet, plant material that monogastric species such as swine and poultry as well as humans cannot digest. The rumen is nature’s wonderful way of allowing ruminants to use forages that are high in cellulose such as pasture grasses, corn stalks and even weeds that can be converted into food and fiber. It’s the way undomesticated animals like deer, elk, moose and bison can survive in the wild. It’s the way exotic beasts of burden like camels, alpacas and llamas can survive in harsh environments. This all happens because of a process called fermentation and it’s the bugs in the rumen that make it happen.

Fermentation is the bioconversion of complex carbohydrates into smaller molecular units. Fermentation also occurs during the baking of bread and the brewing of beer. The end products of rumen fermentation are called volatile fatty acids (VFA), which are absorbed in the cow’s small intestine and are converted to glucose in the liver. The rumen can ferment fibrous cellulose as well as nonfiber carbohydrates (NFC) such as grains and other commodity byproducts.

For modern dairy cows, the rumen must function continuously and consistently around the clock for them to produce the many gallons of milk they do. Any disruption in feed supply or a drastic change in diet will disrupt the work of the rumen bugs. When reduced in number for any reason, cow health and milk production suffers.

Excessive levels of the nonfiber carbohydrates (NFC), while having the ability to increase metabolizable energy in a cow’s diet, can disrupt the delicate pH balance in the rumen, which affects the bugs’ ability to ferment feed at their optimal ability. The nonfiber carbs such as starch and sugars are more easily broken apart by the bugs and when there’s excessive amounts of those carbs being fermented, more acid is produced than can leave the rumen, and the rumen environment becomes increasingly more acidic. The bugs can’t function as well as the acidity increases and other microbes take over, which create an even more potent acid – lactic acid. It’s the accumulation of lactic acid that causes rumen acidosis.

Read more: Rumen Protected Fats in Dairy

Proper balancing of feed rations is necessary for creating and supporting a healthy microbial population in the rumen. Keeping the pH level in a rumen between 6.0 and 6.5 is the generally accepted range to support good fermentation in the rumen. Diets excessively high in NFC will produce acids that will drive pH below 6.0, which creates a hostile and even toxic environment for the fiber-digesting bacteria. Continued low rumen pH levels will eventually result in clinical acidosis for the cow and a rapid decline in milk components, milk production and health.

The challenge for ruminant scientists and dairy farmers is to feed those carbohydrates that are soluble and quickly fermented while providing adequate fiber to keep rumen microbes in the rumen long enough to accomplish fermentation. In the modern dairy industry acute and subacute rumen acidosis are second only to mastitis as the most prevalent metabolic diseases in dairy cows. It’s generally believed today that most commercial dairy farms in the U.S. – and especially those on diets containing high levels of corn – experience some level of acidosis in their cows.

Complex carbohydrates such as cellulose, which are most abundant in forages, are the key to keeping a rumen happy, healthy and balanced. It’s recommended that the level of forage in dairy cow diets does not drop below 30 percent of total dry matter consumed. In an effort to balance carbohydrate fractions and avoiding an acidotic rumen, nutritionists suggest keeping nonfiber carbohydrates balanced between 32 percent and 38 percent of dry matter intakes when feeding higher levels of grains like corn and barley or byproducts such as wheat midds, hominy and distillers grains. When rations contain high quality hay, haylage, brown mid-rib corn or sugar beet or citrus pulp, and the effective fiber is adequate, the level of NFC can be increased to 38 percent to 42 percent of total dry matter intake.

The high producing cows in any dairy herd require much higher levels of fermentation in the rumen to meet energy needs and microbial efficiencies to sustain their milk production. Any large variation in rumen pH throughout the day will have the greatest impact on the fresh cows.

The economics of dairy farming have necessitated the increase of milk production per cow for many dairy farmers to remain afloat financially. To get more milk out of a cow means increasing her plane of nutrition and making sure that microbial fermentation is optimal throughout the day. The greater the number of microbes in a rumen, the more fermentation that can be accomplished. The more microbes working in the rumen also means more microbial protein that will be available for proper amino acid nutrition. The more nutrients a cow can absorb every day, the more milk she can produce.

Read more: Optimizing the Rumen

Pennsylvania Dairy Leaders Discuss Dairy Challenges at Roundtable Meetings


Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence hosted five roundtable meetings across the state in mid-May to discuss dairy profitability and associated topics.

Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence hosted five roundtable meetings across the state in mid-May to discuss dairy profitability and associated topics with executive director Jayne Sebright and risk management program manager Alan Zepp.

In Bedford on last May, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding, plus field representatives, consultants, lending agents and extension experts, offered insight and ideas on dairy consumption, costs, foreign trade, immigration and production practices.

Zepp reviewed statistics that illustrate the state of the dairy industry. At close to 9.4 million head, the U.S. dairy herd is the largest since the 1990s. Milk production continues to rise, and butter, cheese and nonfat dry milk stocks all show significant increases over three years ago. Exports have not regained the volume achieved in early 2014 but reached $473 million in March of this year compared with $362 million in January 2016. The value of the U.S. dollar, although still relatively high, has been weakening. A strong dollar renders our exports less competitive.

Center for Dairy Excellence executive director Jayne Sebright leads the Roundtable meeting discussions of issues facing the dairy industry from the topics suggested by the attendees. Photo by Bob Ferguson

Secretary Redding reminded the group of the announcement to renegotiate NAFTA. He advocated working with Secretary Perdue and U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer on trade. “Fourteen percent of our milk is exported,” Sebright added.

Redding shared his recent conversation with Tom Vilsack, now president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “That very day,” Redding reported, “Vilsack said Australia and New Zealand were prepared to meet the U.S. price for Mexico. Our top export market is Mexico.”

Sebright pointed out Governor Wolf asked Prime Minister Trudeau to reevaluate his approach regarding Canada’s trade barrier on our exported ultra-filtered milk.

Zepp’s scorecard showed a U.S. all-milk price for March at $17.30 per cwt., obviously better than the March 2016 cwt. price of $15.30, but a devastating plunge from the $25.20 per cwt. in March 2014.

Turning to financing debt, Valerie Detwiler of CBT Bank commented that she has noticed farmer payments becoming farther behind. Zepp said, “Production costs should be lower in Pennsylvania.” Mike Hosterman, AgChoice Farm Credit vice president, noticed that New York dairy producers enjoy $1 per cwt. lower cost than those in the Commonwealth. “Pennsylvania has higher overhead and higher variable cost,” he said.

Penn State Extension educator Greg Strait reported that he counsels dairy farmers in this current situation to be certain to achieve the premiums such as a low somatic cell count.

Several meeting attendees noticed that dairymen often retain unproductive and unprofitable cows. “They care about their animals!” was the explanation. Amy Yeiser Leslie, industry relations specialist for American Dairy Association North East, quickly said, “We have to show the public that we care.” She explained that their promotions build consumer confidence as well as drive milk and dairy products demand. They work with schools and retailers, plus educate consumers about dairy production and the environment. Moreover, their training programs help the industry tell the dairy story. Currently workshops are scheduled for June 7 in Saratoga Springs, and June 8 for Batavia, both in New York.

Recognizing the immigration issues, Redding noted, “You can’t go to any discussion without talking about labor.” He explained, “The agricultural community has many opinions, but no solutions.” Further, Redding said, the views span H-2A to new proposals of green/blue cards to ‘ship them out.’ Compounding the issue is the lack of information on the numbers of guest workers. Stressing the need for a workable system with diverse needs such as seasonal or year-round, Redding said, “Dairy looks more like mushrooms than apples.”

With uncertainties in the export market and insufficient demand to absorb the gains in dairy productivity, the Northeast shares the national problem of surplus milk. A representative from a cooperative exclaimed, “Cities don’t want milk anymore. Urban areas want almond and soy milk.” He added that now more milk is being dumped.  For Federal Milk Order No. 1, which encompasses states from Maryland to Maine, approval was granted for $11.4 million animal feed and dumpage category in January.

Sebright summarizes the roundtable meeting discussions, “We need to develop demand or diminish the supply for balance in the industry to be restored.”

Zepp’s monthly update with April data showed class III futures prices pushing up to $17 per cwt. for early fall, while USDA lowered their 2017 milk production estimates. Also, export values are stronger than 2016. Significantly, consumer confidence, which appears to drive demand, is the highest since 2000.

Sebright is optimistic. She noted, “Demand is now growing domestically and for exports. The industry is showing potential.”

Monarch Butterflies and the Conservation Effort


It was in 1999 that professors at Cornell University sounded the alarm: Research had found that monarch butterfly larvae eating pollen from Bt corn hybrids were injured or killed by the pollen.

It was in 1999 that professors at Cornell University sounded the alarm: Research had found that monarch butterfly larvae eating pollen from Bt corn hybrids were injured or killed by the pollen. If this involved an unattractive moth or a lesser known butterfly the news probably would have gone unnoticed by the press and the public. But the news spread far in a matter of days, largely because the monarch butterfly is one of the best known, loved butterflies in the world; its brilliant orange and black coloration make it easy to recognize. There hadn’t been a hint of Bt corn pollen affecting monarch butterfly larvae in any previous scientific literature, nor was it among the concerns cited even by people opposed to genetic engineering. In 1999 corn hybrids with the Bt trait (which produced resistance to the European corn borer) were just becoming popular. At the time these hybrids represented less than 20 percent of all field corn planted in the U.S., so this was in the early years of genetically modified organisms (GMO). This trait was rapidly becoming much more popular, however, because it was highly effective in protecting corn plants from the European corn borer.

Corn borer moths lay eggs on the underside of corn leaves. The eggs hatch and following several developmental stages (instars) the larvae become large enough to bore into the corn stalks, creating feeding cavities in the stalk that weaken it and result in lodging. (Lodging refers to corn plants breaking off, thereby becoming difficult or impossible to harvest.)

We did two years of research at Miner Institute (Chazy, New York) comparing replicated strips of Bt and non-Bt corn, with dramatic results: We found that 25 percent (first year) and 46 percent (second year) of the non-Bt corn plants were invested by corn borers, whereas in the Bt hybrid, which was genetically identical except for the Bt trait, there wasn’t a single corn borer in any plant we examined. This was true for both years of the study. I also remember how much work it was for our research staff to harvest and then split the stalk of each corn plant examined, looking for corn borer damage. This was necessary since a casual examination of the plant may miss the borer hole.

Milkweed is the only food of monarch butterfly larvae, so the Cornell researchers dusted corn pollen from a corn hybrid with the Bt-corn borer trait onto milkweed plants, looking for signs of toxicity in the larvae. Their reasoning was that milkweed is commonly found in waste areas near corn fields and the pollen from the corn plants with the Bt trait could drift from the field onto the milkweed leaves. They found that compared with larvae feeding on milkweed leaves dusted with corn pollen from non-Bt corn, the monarch larvae feeding on milkweed dusted with Bt corn pollen had decreased feeding, growth and survival rates. Their conclusion: Bt corn could threaten monarch butterfly populations feeding on milkweed growing near these corn fields.

Other entomologists challenged the validity of these results, pointing out that the amount of pollen dusted onto milkweed leaves was far in excess of anything that would be found in nature. Under natural conditions much of the corn pollen landing on milkweed leaves is blown off by the wind or washed off by rain, but under laboratory conditions there was neither wind nor rain.

What this study did, however, was to cause entomologists from other land grant universities to conduct studies of the interaction between Bt corn and monarch butterfly larvae. Extensive research has found that survival of monarch butterfly populations are not threatened by the planting of corn with the genetically engineered Bt trait. A study in Maryland better represented natural conditions; it examined the survival rate of monarch larvae exposed to Bt and non-Bt corn pollen in a corn field. Survival rates of the larvae ranged from 80 percent to 93 percent, with no difference in survival rates between the Bt and non-Bt plots.

Some people were concerned that milkweed growing as “weedy invaders” in corn fields would be especially subject to corn pollen depositions. However, farmers work hard to eliminate milkweed from corn fields, usually with good results. One change that has had a negative impact on monarch butterfly populations is the conversion of vast acreages of continuous hayland and permanent pasture in the Midwest – prime sites for milkweed – into rotated cropland growing corn, soybeans and other grain crops. With these cropping changes a greater portion of milkweed is now found along roadsides, resulting in a lot more monarch butterflies meeting their fate on the grills of passing cars than from exposure to Bt corn pollen.

Recently there’s been good news regarding monarch butterfly populations, which have been greatly increasing from their lows of several years ago. In fact, between 2015 and 2016 the number of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico (their natural winter habitat) tripled. These butterflies are also getting a helping hand from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

In November 2015 NRCS announced a conservation effort in 10 states in the Midwest and the southern Great Plains aimed at helping farmers provide food and habitat for monarch butterflies. NRCS is providing technical and financial assistance to help farmers and “conservation partners” plant milkweed along field borders, in buffers along waterways or around wetlands, in pastures and other suitable locations where they won’t interfere with normal farming practices. NRCS is also helping farmers manage their pastures to increase populations of milkweed while not decreasing the productive capability of the pasture. Therefore, the situation has changed from where farmers growing Bt corn were wrongly implicated in the decline of the monarch butterfly, to the current program where farmers are assisting USDA efforts to expand populations.

Raising Awareness for Dairy Farming During National Dairy Month


June is a national dairy month and it’s a great time to promote dairy products and raise awareness for dairy farming among the greater community.

June is a national dairy month and it’s a great time to promote dairy products and raise awareness for dairy farming among the greater community. With less and less of the general public directly connected to agriculture, it’s imperative for farmers and the corresponding national promotion programs to actively spread the word.

The American Dairy Association North East is the local affiliate of the National Dairy Council and a regional consolidation of three promotion organizations including the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Inc., Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association and Pennsylvania Dairy Promotion Program.  The organization is funded by dairy checkoff dollars from more than 12,000 dairy farms in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and northern Virginia.

“For every 100 pounds of milk sold, 15 cents is deducted for promotion,” explained Katie Dotterer-Pyle, the former producer relations coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association and owner of Cow Comfort Inn Dairy in Maryland. “Of that 10 cents goes towards local dairy promotion and 5 cents goes to the Dairy Management Inc., the national dairy promotion organization to promote the industry as a whole.”

The organization fosters relationships with consumers, the media, health professionals, educators and more to promote the health benefits associated with dairy products. Through social media, blogs and in-person training events, the promotion efforts benefit all participating farmers.

In addition to benefitting from the consolidated efforts of the American Dairy Association North East, there are five marketing strategies you can implement on your own farm. These are tools that Dotterer-Pyle has used with success on her own farm.

  1. Participate in Checkoff Trainings– The trainings can be held for as few as 10 farmers within a given area. The day-long training helps you better prepare for educating and interacting with the general public in regards to farm life. “The training helps farmers write an ‘elevator speech,’ teaches dairy farmers how to drive dairy discussions and learn what consumers think of you as a farmer,” she explained.
  2. Farm tours– Invite the community in to experience in person how a dairy operation works. Showing people in person allows for conversation and an opportunity to answer questions.

“We’ve had people visit that think we still milk by hand,” she said. “People don’t know what a teat is or what a milking machine looks like.”

Farm tours can be given one at a time, to small groups or an open house can be planned. “Even if your schedule is super busy, make time for farm tours,” she urged.

  1. Social media– Dotterer-Pyle admits that she has received a lot of eye rolls when she encourages other dairy farmers to participate in social media. But it’s not a fad, it’s here to stay. The key to success is picking the right platform.

“Facebook is an older crowd. Younger people are on Snapchat and Instagram,” she said. “You have to go to where the customer base is.”

Posting is the easiest part of the process. In October 2016, she shot a four minute video about the milking process. It garnered 250,000 views. “Answering questions to the post takes the most time, but it’s the most important part,” she said.

  1. Avoid jargon– Today’s consumers aren’t familiar with farming lingo. Think of ways to relate technical terms to something the general public can grasp. “I’ll compare a hoof trimming to a manicure,” she said.
  2. Break out of your silo– “It’s important to go to other groups and interact with people who aren’t dairy farmers, those are the people we’re trying to reach and convince to buy dairy products over other plant-based products on the market,” she said.

Maximizing Use of Nutrients in Manure


Here’s how to maximize use of nutrients found in manure.

Manure always has been an excellent source of organic and inorganic nutrients. The challenge is knowing how to effectively manage the host of factors that affect the nutrient content of manure.

According to the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) it starts with knowing what nutrients the soil already contains. This can only be determined by using a good home testing kit or sending a sample away to a certified soil testing laboratory. A quality laboratory will be able to assess the present levels of major plant nutrients, micronutrients, soil pH, soil textural analysis, soil organic matter as well as contaminants.

Soil testing prices can vary depending on your state, the lab that is used and the items being tested. The NRCS states that most labs charge from a range of $7-10 for a basic test but the cost increases as more nutrients are analyzed. Soil tests are normally only needed every three to five years but the NRCS recommends yearly testing whenever manure is applied or there is a need for large nutrient or pH changes to the soil.

A recent study conducted by the University of Kentucky found that soil nutrient values will vary seasonally. For this reason, it is necessary to take soil samples at the same time each year. The study determined fall as the optimum time for sampling because this is when soil tends to have an ideal moisture range and nutrient values are at their lowest. Also, if there happens to be a pH problem there is ample time to apply fertilizer or lime to fix it whereas in the spring there is limited time before planting.

Manure matters

Knowing the soil nutrient content is just one half of the equation. The other half is knowing the manure makeup. Manure is made up of organic matter, which improves soil structure, aeration, moisture holding capacity and water infiltration. It also supplies micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium and sulfur, which are beneficial to the soil should a deficiency exist. Both calcium and magnesium also create an added value by producing a liming effect when added to the soil.

Among the many plant nutrients found in manure none are more crucial to farmers then nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The over or under application of these nutrients can have adverse effects on crops, which is why proper sampling and analysis is necessary. Nitrogen is the primary building block for plant protoplasm, which is needed for flower differentiation, speedy shoot growth, the health of flower buds and the quality of fruit set. Nitrogen also acts as a catalyst for the other minerals. Phosphorus is needed for energy transfer and storage in plants. It helps plants to mature and promotes root, flower and seed development. Potassium is needed to activate enzymes, form sugars and build up essential oils. It also improves cold weather tolerance. The values of these key nutrients vary based on factors such as animal species, feed, temperature, precipitation, bedding, handling and storage.

According to the Cooperative Extension at Penn State University, for best results, manure should be sampled at the time of application or as close as possible to application because this ensures that samples will be well-mixed and representative of the manure being applied. Manure samples should not be collected directly from the storage facility because of the difficulty in collecting a representative sample.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach adds that collecting manure samples for nutrient analysis should not be a one-time event. If factors such as feed, management, storage or land application change frequently then samples should be taken on a yearly basis. If there have been no significant changes to these factors for at least three years, then sampling frequency can be reduced. The university extension also points out that much like soils, manure sampling should be taken near the same time every year to account for any seasonal changes.



When choosing manure, determine how much nitrogen is in it. Too much nitrogen can burn plant leaves and roots, whereas too little nitrogen will stunt plant growth. It is helpful to know that most of the nitrogen in manure is in the organic form and must be converted to ammonium or nitrate forms before it can become available to plants. This occurs naturally when microbes in the soil physically break down the organic matter found in manure.

Microbes operate most effectively at temperatures between 70 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Microbe activity slows considerably once temperatures fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Soil at 60 to 80 percent water holding capacity provides the most efficient moisture content for microbes. Too much moisture deprives the microbes of the oxygen that they need to survive. A soil pH between 4 and 9 is necessary to support different microbe varieties. There is a sharp drop-off in microbe activity any time the pH goes above or below this range.

Another key point when it comes to nitrogen availability is whether manure is in solid or liquid form. A four-year study done by the University of California found that liquid manure provided almost five times more available nitrogen than solid manure per ton of dry weight. The study also found that 75 percent of the nitrogen in liquid manure was available the first year after application, whereas only 45 percent of the nitrogen from the solid manure was available in the first year. This is good to know because certain crops require more nitrogen than others at certain growing stages.

One way to ensure that plants get the proper amount of nitrogen is by using certain animal manures. Nitrogen content in manures depends in large part on what an animal is fed. Animals that are herbivores like cows, horses and rabbits tend to produce manure that has a low nitrogen content. Manures that are low in nitrogen already have an ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio so they can be tilled directly into the soil without fear of causing plant damage.



Animals that are omnivores like chickens and pigs turn out manure with a higher nitrogen content. A good way to offset the high nitrogen content in manure before applying it to the soil is by composting it with carbon-rich materials like leaves or straw. Decomposition of organic materials is greatly increased when there is a proper balance between carbon and nitrogen materials in manure. Decomposition slows down when carbon is too high and speeds up when nitrogen is too high. Maintaining a carbon/nitrogen ratio of around 30:1 is ideal.

For decomposition also consider that different soil textures play a part in the decomposition rate of manure. Due to less surface area and a lower water holding capacity coarse-textured soils allow for a more rapid rate of manure decomposition. On the other hand, fine textured soils such as clay do not provide adequate space for air to collect, causing less biological activity and a slower breakdown of organic. Also coarse-textured soils have a greater potential to lose nitrate from leaching when compared with fine-textured soils.

Nitrogen can also be lost through a process known as volatilization. It occurs when nitrogen is converted from ammonium to ammonia gas and released to the atmosphere. Volatilization losses increase when manure is located near the soil surface in warm, moist and high pH conditions. Losses from volatilization can be reduced by effectively tilling manure under the soil and applying it in the spring when soil and air temperatures are cool.

Proper application

Once the manure content is determined and the proper application rate is established the next step is deciding when to apply manure to the soil. Jose Hernandez, an Extension educator at the University of Minnesota, said that the timing of manure applications can make a significant difference in nutrient availability to the crop. According to Hernandez, the ideal time to spread manure is in the spring because that is when crop nutrient uptake will be at its peak and losses due to runoff and leaching are reduced.

Fall is another acceptable time for manure application, according to Hernandez, because it allows more time for the organic portions of the manure to break down before the plant needs the nutrients. The only negative to a fall application is that it provides more time for nitrogen leaching to occur. Hernandez said that if fall application is necessary then it should be done later in the season when soil temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit because low soil temperatures prevent the nitrogen from leaching.

Douglas Beegle, a professor of Agronomy at Penn State University, said all field types can utilize manure as long as nutrient levels aren’t too high to begin with and proper application management practices are taken.

For example, manure that is distributed into pastures without proper management can lead to weed seed problems and parasite eggs. This can be effectively managed by composting manure prior to application. The high temperatures generated in a compost greatly reduce parasite eggs, weed seeds, parasite eggs and other pathogens.

There are other benefits to composting including raising manure pH, reducing odor and reducing bulk, which makes it easier to handle. When composting it is important to note that the longer manure can decompose the lower the nitrogen availability will be.

A study at the University Wisconsin Extension highlighted several types of fields that may be inappropriate for manure application. According to the study manure should not be applied to fields with thin soils over fractured limestone or fractured sandstone bedrock because it can cause significant groundwater problems due to nitrate leaching. Manure should not be applied to fields that have greater than a 12 percent slope because nutrients can be carried off to lakes and streams during thaws or during early spring rains. Manure shouldn’t be added to fields that are within 200 feet of streams, 1,000 feet of lakes or on wet soils and other areas that are periodically flooded unless it is incorporated within three days. Manure application should be avoided on fields with high phosphorus levels.

Photos: Paul Burdziakowski

Updating Old Barns to Fit Today’s Livestock

barn improvement

Today’s Holstein dairy cow won’t fit into yesterday’s stall.

Barns come in many shapes and sizes. Older barns are often used for a purpose other than their original intentions – such as old dairy barns housing beef cattle or swine. Animals have changed, with genetics focusing on increasing size and productivity. Herd size has increased, so more animals may be needed on the home farm to make the economics work.

Technology, too, has changed the way a barn is utilized. Ventilation becomes more important when animals are confined for longer periods of time. Automatic feeding systems, robotic milking systems or larger equipment moving through the barn require more space and different layouts. Manure management systems have evolved, flooring and bedding options abound, and advances in understanding animal comfort, circadian rhythms and animal behavior have altered housing recommendations.

“The basics of any animal housing include: excellent air quality; dry, comfortable resting areas; good access to feed; good access to drinking water; a confident footing; and protection from weather extremes,” Dan McFarland, agricultural engineer, Penn State Extension, said.

Housing impacts

Sometimes, making small improvements, that build upon one another can be a way of investing in the future. If your barn is in good condition, ventilation is adequate for herd and human health, and overcrowding isn’t a concern, redesigning stalls for better comfort or changing management needs may be the best option for a return on your investment. Animal comfort issues cause decreases in reproduction, increases in illness, poor gain and productivity losses.

However, “if remodeling is not practical, or doesn’t help the business move forward,” building new may be the best option, McFarland said. If remodeling an old facility will cost more than two-thirds of the cost of building new, “working around” issues may not be the best approach for profitability.

Facility issues that impact animal comfort and welfare include air quality, slippery floors, inadequate stalls or inadequate feeding space, McFarland said.

“Air laden with moisture, gases and other pollutants like dust, molds, and pathogens cause respiratory and health problems,” he said. “Clean, fresh, frost-free water should be available at all times. A secure, non-skid floor surface minimizes slips and falls that can cause injury.”

Cleanliness concerns, lameness issues, water quality or heat stress can be due to facility issues, poor management or both. Determining if the main problems for your herd are facility or management induced issues is the place to start assessing your need for a new facility.

“Study after study has shown that overcrowding affects animal behavior negatively. There is more aggression. Resting behavior is affected leading to more ‘idle’ standing that typically leads to increased lameness. Placing more animals in an area than the space was designed for usually results in poorer air quality, due to more moisture from respired air and urine, and increased gas levels from more manure and additional heat,” McFarland said.

Assessing options

McFarland recommends determining if you can justify new facilities by truthfully assessing which ongoing herd management concerns are actually rooted in your outdated facilities. Are old facilities causing herd health and productivity concerns? Is there a need that can’t be met by changes in management? Is your time and labor efficiency detrimentally impacted by facility design rather than management concerns? Could you do something differently in the old facilities that would vastly improve herd and human stress?

If new facilities are justified, are they feasible? Can you afford to build a new barn? A feasibility study focuses on the long-term financial performance of the business, and takes into consideration debt, financing, the cost of operating current facilities and the changes that would need to be made to other areas of the farm if new facilities are built. A “ripple effect,” impacting everything from manure handling, feeding management, crop and pasture access and even animal numbers, can occur with a new building, McFarland said.

cows in a barn
Image Courtesy Of 123ducu/istock

Will a new facility take away from land needed for grazing or crop production? Will expanding animal numbers or decreasing land mean new regulations, such as concentrated animal feeding operation rules, or a need for changes in your manure management plans? What about any construction permits needed?

What is the expected longevity of the farm? The ownership of the farm and the land is a consideration, as making facility improvements can impact the next generation – if there is one – in the long term. Although new facilities might appeal to buyers, if they aren’t designed for the latest technology or management practices – such as robotic milking or a bedded pack barn – they might not attract the buyers you’ll need to recoup your costs. Asking yourself if doing nothing, or even going out of business, is a better option than investing in new facilities often spurs serious discussions and soul-searching on the farm, McFarland said.

Read more: Dairy Barn Construction: It’s All in the Planning

Labor needs may change with new facilities, or may dictate the need of facility changes. If labor is becoming less available, due to aging, labor costs or availability of workers, a new facility can make better use of limited labor. New facilities can also attract workers and can improve lifestyles by decreasing drudgery, enhancing labor efficiency and automating daily tasks.

A cost analysis involves the tangible, as well as intangible, aspects associated with a new facility, or altering an existing one. Compare the cost of a new build that meets all your needs and see how close the existing facility can come with renovations, and what it will cost. Can new technology fit into old spaces, even with a remodel? Will major impediments still exist? What are they and what impact do they have on herd health and productivity? What lifestyle concerns will still exist with a remodel, and would a new build improve your day-to-day routine and enjoyment on the job?

Although “you can’t go to the bank with this,” improving your lifestyle through improved livestock barns does factor into the decision-making process. Increased income can enhance your life; decreasing drudgery through better barn design can make you happier on a daily basis.

Construction advice

McFarland shares his insights on various aspects to consider when improving your barn.

Feed: “Preferably space for all animals to eat at the same time, (make) feed available and within easy reach, (offer) enough time in the area for each animal to consume the adequate amount of feed throughout the day.”

Water: Make it conveniently located, with at least two access points, depending on group size and waterer design. In the dairy, no cow should be more than 50 feet from a watering unit; at least three inches of accessible perimeter per cow in a trough type waterer is needed.

Stalls: These need to be big enough for the largest animals to have access to them. This includes room to rise, recline and rest comfortably. Surfaces should provide cushion, be kept clean and dry and offer traction.

Maternity areas: Space should accommodate times of increased births. Adequate equipment and restraints should be available; areas should be well lit, and kept clean, dry and comfortable. These are not sick animal pens, and sick pens should be isolated from maternity areas.

New build

Herd health concerns carry a price – that of veterinary care and of lost productivity – and need to be factored in to any assessment. Any increase in debt load that building new may cause might be offset by productivity increases, enhanced animal well-being and decreased veterinary bills or cull rates that a new, well-planned facility can provide. Any time animal stress is decreased and comfort is increased, the herd benefits.

If a new build is justified, and it is feasible, deciding upon layout and design, construction materials, building options and assuring quality craftsmanship come next. Many companies specialize in agricultural buildings, including livestock barns that offer design services to customize your needs.

Bruce Jackson, Northeast sales representative for Lester Buildings, knows that meeting the needs of each individual farm, while supplying the highest quality structure, is imperative. The company designs barns for beef cattle, dairy cows, swine and horses.

“Lester Buildings provides a fully engineered structure with one of the best warranties ever. This means that the structure will meet all local and state codes, which gives added value to the property,” Jackson said. “The design options are endless with Lester buildings.”

cows outside a barn
Image Courtesy Of WoodyUpstate/istock

Barn building options need to include ventilation, flooring, electrical and water needs. Access for equipment, roof design and material selection can be customized for specific livestock needs. Design and layout concerns include adequate animal resting areas and alleyways plus readily accessible and uncrowded feeding areas.

“Our dealers will work with the customer to determine flooring needs as well as specific ventilation requirements. They will offer their expertise as to common requirements but can also alter construction for specialty equipment,” Jackson said. “Every structure brings its own electrical and water needs. These decisions will be addressed before a building is ever ordered for delivery so that the design will accommodate these needs. Electrical and water requirements can be included in the scope of work with the Lester dealer, or the building can be built with the customer’s own electrician and plumber finishing their parts.”

Read more: Barn Raising

Getting the options you need to improve your herd management and enhance animal comfort doesn’t automatically happen just because the new facility is bigger in square footage. Although this may reduce overcrowding, poor design in a larger building is still going to cause concerns for equipment, animals and laborers. Often, increasing the herd is part of the strategy to offset the cost of the new building, so factoring in future animal numbers and building large enough to meet this need is imperative.

“Overcrowding challenges animals in several ways. Just because they fit in the space doesn’t mean it will work,” McFarland said, and planning enough space – and designing it to meet the herd’s needs – requires forethought.

McFarland’s recommendations for designing new facilities include space for maternity pens, sick pens, adequate-sized stalls and accessible food and water areas that avoid the perils of overcrowding. Provide animal comfort, allow for expression of natural behaviors, and keep the barn’s overall environment – air and water quality, cleanliness and ease of cleaning and safety for humans and animals – in mind.

Deciding to build a new barn can change the outlook for you and your herd. Starting fresh means eliminating infrastructure concerns that impact day-to-day routines on the farm for you and your animals. Although new facilities can bring improvement just because they are better equipped to keep the herd healthy and comfortable, a new barn also offers the opportunity to change management practices and eliminate poor habits or implement new technology.

“Don’t repeat old mistakes,” McFarland said. “Most of the improvements made to animal facilities come from observation of animals in existing facilities.”

With a lot of different options out there, redesigning your current livestock barn or opting for a new build requires planning ahead to meet future, as well as current herd needs. Old facilities may be holding back your profit, costing you in lost gain, poor herd health, excessive labor needs and increased stress for farmer and animal alike.

Read more: The Right Plan, The Right Barn

Mycotoxins: Exposure and Prevention


Various health challenges may occur in animals and humans when high enough levels of mycotoxins are ingested through contaminated foods.

Mycotoxins are toxic chemicals produced by fungi. Various health challenges may occur in animals and humans when high enough levels of mycotoxins are ingested through contaminated foods. Both ruminant and non-ruminant species are at risk for mycotoxicosis – the illnesses that develop as a result of ingesting mycotoxins.

The presence of mycotoxins indicates that there has been fungal contamination in feedstuffs. There are many dozens of mycotoxins that have been identified but only a handful – those that are most common in animal feedstuffs – have been studied to a large enough extent to know how they affect animal and or human health. Mycotoxins are usually present only in microscopic amounts, being measured in parts-per-million (ppm) and parts-per-billion (ppb).

It’s important to understand that although mycotoxins are produced by fungi, not all fungi produce mycotoxins. Mold, also a member of the fungus family, tends to get the most blame for mycotoxins in animal feeds. Fungi and molds usually grow in warm, moist and humid conditions. The exact circumstances or growing conditions in which fungi produce mycotoxins is not well understood.

Mycotoxins have been around since the beginning of time. However, they began to be identified as problems in the 1960s. Prior to the emergence of globalized agriculture, issues with mycotoxins were most likely isolated and limited to short time periods and small geographic regions. A crop or a storage facility, for instance, may have developed mycotoxins for a season but would disappear as crops were rotated and storage facilities were emptied and cleaned. As commercial farming incorporates more monoculture and agriculture becomes more globalized, the prevalence of mycotoxins in the food supply has increased.

Modern animal agriculture uses grains and grain byproducts as a primary food source. Dairy cows are routinely fed diets consisting of corn, barley and wheat-based ingredients. Due to the abundance of carbohydrates, all grains are susceptible to mold growth and the production of mycotoxins when conditions are favorable. Mycotoxicosis and other metabolic challenges occur when diets contain grains and byproducts that are heavily contaminated with mycotoxins.

Feeds contaminated with mycotoxins can cause a variety of illnesses in dairy cows and young stock that may result in poor milk production, poor growth rates, poor fertility or abortions and lead to death when organs such as the liver or kidneys are seriously affected. In all cases, depending on the type and severity of mycotoxin contamination, the animal’s defense mechanisms and immune system will fight to mitigate the problems caused by mycotoxicosis.

Mycotoxins are highly resistant to degradation or destruction during processing or storage. Mycotoxins can also develop during storage even when none was present during growth. Despite processing and heat, corn byproducts such as distillers grains (DDG) and corn gluten will also remain contaminated with mycotoxins if the original corn grain was contaminated. Adverse storage conditions with high heat and humidity have been known to produce mycotoxins, as fungi are produced during storage.

Corn – including corn silage – is the most widely grown crop in the U.S. and is a primary feedstuff in dairy cow diets. Corn is highly susceptible to mold growth as it grows. Mold grows on the ears, on the leaves and on the stalks and remains there during harvest, transportation and storage. However, depending on the moisture, humidity and temperature during all stages of growth, corn may or may not develop mycotoxins in any given season.

The mycotoxins, deoxynivalenol (also known as DON or vomitoxin), fumonisin and zearalenone all come from a fungal species called fusarium and are known to be problematic for dairy cows as well as monogastric species. Mycotoxicosis in farm animals is often difficult to diagnose and treat effectively. There are great differences in the susceptibility of mycotoxicosis in animals, depending on species, age and sex. Mycotoxins have an immunosuppressive effect, although the exact target within the immune system may differ. Many are also cytotoxic meaning they can do direct damage to the gut, skin or lungs. Presence of multiple mycotoxins may be synergistic, increasing the susceptibility of the exposed animal to other infectious diseases.

Feedstuffs such as DDG or corn gluten have long been used for protein and energy supplementation in dairy cow diets. Hominy, another corn byproduct, is often used to supplement diets that are low in energy. All of these products have proven nutritional value but can still be problematic if contaminated with mycotoxins. Mycotoxin contamination in corn is nearly unavoidable and it’s difficult to find a crop of corn that does not contain a mycotoxin. In the U.S., the mycotoxin, aflatoxin, is the only mycotoxin that is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Aflatoxin B1 has been identified as a potent natural carcinogen and is routinely monitored in grains and is commonly found in peanuts as well as cottonseed, a product used by the dairy industry. Aflatoxins appear to be more prevalent in feeds that have been grown or stored in hot, moist and humid conditions.

Feed manufacturers and other feed handlers are required to regularly test for aflatoxins to ensure that levels do not exceed legal limits. Other common mycotoxins such as DON should also be tested on a regular basis because they pose significant health problems for all species (see table). Dairy farmers who suspect they may have mycotoxin issues in their herd should verify with their feed supplier that the feeds they bring in are regularly tested and those tests are well below dangerous levels. Once again, it is nearly impossible to find feeds that do not have at least some minute level of mycotoxins in them.

mycotoxin in grains chart

Mycotoxins in dairy feeds do not just affect corn. Other grains such as wheat, rye and barley also are susceptible to mold growth. Each of these grains can support mold growth when growing conditions are optimal. Although fungicides may be effective in decreasing fungal growth in plants, a more environmentally friendly way to limit fungi is through crop rotation and avoiding monoculture farming.

In the case of DDG or wheat byproducts such as mill run, it’s difficult to identify mycotoxin contamination with a visual examination. Laboratory testing is the most effective way to determine if plants are contaminated and what types of mycotoxins are present. Most forage testing labs offer mycotoxin testing for a number of the most commonly found mycotoxins. The key to avoiding mycotoxin contamination is to purchase feeds from reputable suppliers that test for mycotoxins on a regular basis.

There are now a number of different mycotoxin absorbents or binders available. Some are clay based (for example, aluminum silicate) and others are carbohydrate based (for example, oligosaccharides). All of these products form chemical bonds with various mycotoxins, rendering them ineffective in the animal gut. Depending on the level of contamination, problems may still persist even if binders are included in the diet. Research is ongoing to find binders that bind with specific mycotoxins. One type of binder may be more effective on certain types of toxins whereas another binder may be more effective on other toxins. In today’s dairy diets it’s always prudent and precautionary to keep a binder in the diet year-round. Check with your feed supplier or an animal nutritionist for more information.

Unfortunately for animal agriculture, mycotoxins are a growing concern as agriculture becomes more globalized and feeds are being imported and exported more frequently around the world. Knowing the geographic origin and the growing conditions of feeds and byproducts and testing of feeds is the best way to avoid mycotoxin contamination in animal feeds.

Read more: Mycotoxins and Binders

How Are We Doing at Feeding the World?


It’s estimated that worldwide production of foodstuffs must increase by an average of 1.75 percent between now and about 2050 when the global population is expected to peak at just under 10 billion.

How are we doing at feeding the world? Not so bad, actually: It’s estimated that worldwide production of foodstuffs must increase by an average of 1.75 percent between now and about 2050 when the global population is expected to peak at just under 10 billion. In recent years we’ve been averaging 1.73 percent annual growth, with developed nations outpacing less prosperous ones. The Economist issued a report a couple of years ago on the global food situation and how likely it is that we’ll be able to meet the goal of feeding the world in the decades ahead. The report was refreshingly positive, citing better management, improved technologies (including precision farming and genetically modified crops) as reasons for optimism.

Connections and connectivity

Like The Economist, I’m optimistic about the chances of agriculture feeding the world. One reason is the increased rate of technology transfer, thanks to the internet. A high percentage of the developed world is now “connected,” and agriculture is in the forefront. In the U.S. we’ve long been accustomed to an effective connection (electronically and otherwise) between research done at land grant universities and state Extension services. Research results are forwarded to the appropriate Extension educators at university and county levels and they transfer this information to farmers and agribusiness professionals by various means – farm visits, meetings, newsletters (print and electronic), etc. However, even in what we’d consider “developed” countries, this connectivity is largely missing.

I well remember years ago on a consulting trip to a western European nation learning that a professor at the nation’s top (public) agricultural college was willing to tell farmers what he knew about a particular technology – but at a price. I’ve visited almost a dozen nations that have significant agricultural production, and with the notable exception of Canada, via Ministry of Agriculture offices in each province, there isn’t anything like the researcher -farmer connection we have in the U.S.

The internet is changing that, particularly in developed countries with good internet access. Over half of the European population has an internet connection. More than 90 percent of Japanese and 85 percent of Australians have internet connections. The most connected nation, surprisingly, is Iceland, with 98 percent of its population having internet access. China is at 50 percent and increasing. However, most African nations have very poor internet access, with less than half the population, and in some nations less than 25.

There’s no information as to whether farmers in the various nations are more or less connected than the general populace, but I’m betting it’s more. A farmer in Spain can now learn the latest on alfalfa harvest management by entering that phrase into his laptop or smartphone.

Agricultural R&D

One area of great concern is public funding for agricultural research and development (R&D), which has stagnated for the past 40-plus years and in the past 10 to 15 years has actually declined using constant dollars (thus removing any impact from inflation). In contrast, the amount of money invested by the private sector has increased tremendously since 1970. In 1970, the money invested in R&D was about equal from public and private sources. But since then, public funding in R&D has declined while private funding has more than tripled. This change has been most notable since 2000. This benefits some nongovernmental organizations – the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute for instance, which has seen its research income increase by multiples over the past 20 years – but there are drawbacks.

If a private company funds research, either at a land grant university or at Miner Institute, it’s almost always with a profit motive in mind. There’s nothing wrong with profit, but there are critical areas of research that at least in the short run don’t appear to benefit any particular agribusiness. An example is research involved in reducing the nutrients discharged by subsurface (tile) drainage systems, a project currently under way at Miner Institute via a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. This type of research isn’t as exciting to the general public as, for instance, new technologies in seed treatments that increase yield potential, but in the long run it has more potential impact on agricultural production and in protecting our environment.

The nation’s seed companies aren’t taking the “dollar drain” on public agricultural research funding sitting down. In 2017, for the first time there’s a checkoff of $1 per bag of alfalfa seed, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to support crop research at public universities (no administrative costs will be paid by checkoff dollars). Most seed companies are participating in this voluntary program.

Agricultural education and expertise

Land grant universities and other publicly funded agricultural colleges have also felt the pinch of reduced state and federal funding. This has affected both undergraduate teaching and the expertise available at these colleges to farmers and agribusiness. Over a period of about 10 years, one state university with which I’m familiar lost its Extension entomologist, plant pathologist, weed scientist and soil fertility specialist – partly, but not entirely, due to retirements. The last time I checked, none of these positions have been filled. Therefore when the university conducts refresher training courses for farmers wanting to maintain their Pesticide Applicator licenses there isn’t anyone left at that university to provide the training – it has to “import” expertise from other institutions. In some cases this is resulting in public-private partnerships, but this only makes up for a small part of the long-term dollar drain. There’s never been a better time for farmers to become active in influencing public policy decisions, locally and otherwise.