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SEC Dairy Program

1. General Introduction

In many parts of the world milk and dairy products are an important part in human consumption. The growing world population and improved livelihoods will lead to an increased demand for these products. However, in recent years milk production has shown strong fluctuations for various reasons. In this introduction a general picture will be provided on the global dairy sector and the forecasts provided by leading organisations such as IDF, FAO and IFCN.

The first part of this chapter gives an overview of global statistics on production and trade, showing the regional differences and price fluctuations of recent years. The IFCN World Map shows consumption patterns in relation to production areas and the flow of milk from farm to consumer. Production costs vary substantially per region. The imbalance in supply and demand, combined with higher production costs, increased the world market price by 23% in 2021.

The role of dairy in human wealth, health and environment is discussed in the second part of this chapter. Globally cow milk covers 83% of the total milk production, but regional differences occur, such as in South Asia where buffalo milk is highly important. Farm development changed over the years, shifting to larger herds and higher levels of production. In countries with emerging dairy markets still much can be improved, although natural conditions often limit progress. Here subsistence farming often is the main farming system, but a growing commercial dairy sector is developing. Livestock are important as a source of regular income (milk) or as a way of saving (meat). Demand is still growing as a result of population growth, urbanization and improved livelihoods. Many studies have been carried out on milk and health, concluding that milk and dairy products are beneficial if quality is properly controlled. Environmental aspects conclude this section: the risks of rapid growth in livestock and the capability of ruminants to eat what humans cannot. Awareness of environmental control is necessary and growing.

2. Farm Management

A dairy farmer not only has to be a technical expert on nutrition, breeding, animal health, calf rearing and crop production, but also has to make sure that all these aspects are managed efficiently: planning, marketing and product quality. On large(r) farms dealing with human resource management is additional task.

Part 1 of this chapter deals with the complexity of dairy farming and the need for establishing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) based on proper recording (preferably by using a well-designed software program). In addition, there is a continued need for learning: the sector is developing, research comes with new conclusions and innovative systems are brought on the market. Examples of KPIs are presented, after which an introduction on farm management software is presented. Economic performance also needs to be monitored and the interpretation of gross margins is considered a valuable tool to identify opportunities for improvement. Study groups are important to learn from each other as colleagues or to work with specialists on specific topics, such as nutrition and breeding. Sharing information leads to more knowledge for all participants.

Part 2 of the chapter deals with Best Management Practices: how to improve production efficiency. Practical tips are provided on all major topics to make farm management easier and more effective, while the technical aspects are discussed in detail in the relevant chapters. Animal welfare and environment are also covered in this section as we all share responsibility for Planet Earth.

3. Housing and Farm Infrastructures

Providing cows and their offspring with a safe and stress-free environment is one of the main conditions for maximising milk production and minimising health problems. In addition to animal housing, designs have to be made for an office, storage facilities (feed, fodder, manure, etc), workshop/machinery shed and the building for the milking parlour. The ecological conditions for dairy farming such as climate, soil, genetic resources, prevalence of animal diseases and the reliability and quality of farm inputs and services are factors that play an important role in the design of farm infrastructure.

The choice for free-housing, tie-up housing or ‘open barns’ depends largely on climate, soil type, farm-size and local conditions. This chapter gives all essential information for each type of barn and helps the farmer to avoid costly mistakes in design and to make the best choice for his situation.

First of all, we look at the basic needs: cow dimensions, natural behaviour and climate control. The traditional barns used by many smallholders do not meet these basic criteria and if a farmer decides to invest in a high producing dairy breed, such as Holstein or Montbeliard, not only nutrition, but also housing conditions need to be improved. As some farmers still prefer tie-up systems, the various options are discussed. However, the main focus is on the free-stall system. We look at resting places, feeding area, cow traffic in the barn, milking areas and systems, manure removal and management, concrete floors and specific areas for treatment, calving and cows in their dry period.

In semi-arid regions, such as North-Africa and the Middle-East, housing systems can be made cheaper if cows can rest in open yards with sandy soils. Here the main issue is prevention of heat stress and maintaining hygiene near the feeding places and water troughs where cows spend much of their time.

Calf and young stock housing are addressed as well: individual and/or group housing, when to start with cubicles and how to adjust the cubicle size according to age and animal dimensions. Drinking and eating places, manure management and climate control are part of the curriculum.

Storage facilities for feed ingredients, forage (hay and silage) and farm machinery also have to meet certain criteria and dimensions depend on annual requirements. In addition, a larger farm will need a dressing room for the staff and a safe place for drugs and consumables.

Mistakes in barn design are costly, but still occur and are regretted for many years. Not only by the owner of the farm, but by his cows as well. Advice from specialists and good preparation are an investment that always repays.

4. Animal Nutrition

This is a key-section in dairy farming and in this training course. This topic will cover several sub-chapters:

  • First the digestive system and the function of the relevant organs are explained as this determines what we feed and what happens to the feed. Eating and drinking behaviour conclude Part 1.
  • Part 2 discusses feed composition – organic matter and ash, dry matter content, energy use and forms of energy, protein and its digestibility, the main function of minerals and vitamins and finally a summary of the various feed evaluation systems.
  • Then the most important feeds and feed ingredients for dairy cattle are discussed in Part 3: what do we have available to feed cows and their young stock. Forages are the basis for ruminants, but for high productive cows a range of high-density feedstuffs are needed as well, mainly by-products of the agro-industry. Forage crops will be discussed in more detail in chapter 5.
  • The next step (Part 4) is the formulation of rations based on the nutritional requirements of a cow for maintenance and production. A table shows the requirements of a cow at different bodyweights, production levels and milk composition, while for selected feeds feeding values are given. A step-by-step calculation is then made to calculate a basic ration. A faster way is to use a computerized ration calculation program, but not all farmers may have access to a computer. A ration program in Excel can be made available.
  • What we calculate may not be what the cow actually digests. Errors in feeding value can exist or dry matter intake is less then expected. Losses may occur, selection of feed can take place. Observing the cow for signs of health and performance is discussed in Part 5 of Animal Nutrition.
  • Three special topics will conclude the chapter in nutrition (combined as Parts 6):
    • The transition period (around calving) requires special attention from a farmer to make sure that the next lactation will be without problems and cow and calf have a good start after the cow gives birth.
    • Reducing heat stress. In addition to adequate housing, adapted feeding management is necessary to maintain milk production at an acceptable level. As feed intake is reduced, feeding values have to be higher to meet the requirements. Feeding systems also have to be adapted to the climatic conditions.

    • Forage availability and quality are not always enough to cover the basic needs, especially for high productive cows. Special attention to the use of soy products and other high-density feeds in the ration will conclude the chapter.

The course attendants will learn what a cow needs and how this can be provided in the best way from available feed resources. The basic principles are the same for each cow, but the availability of feeds varies largely from region to region according to climatic conditions and crop husbandry. The genetic potential of a cow should be in balance with her management and care, as happy cows keep farmers happy as well.

5. Forage Production and Conservation

Forage is the basis for the nutrition of ruminants and if done well also the cheapest source of energy and proteins. In this section we will discuss the main forage crops (grasses, legumes, grains) for various environmental areas (temperate, sub-tropical, tropical).

Time of harvesting has great impact on feeding value, while soil conditions and crop management form the basis for forage production. Fodder crops can be directly fed or grazed, but in most countries fodder conservation (as hay or silage) is a must to cover the annual needs of the cattle. The principles of hay and silage making will be discussed.

Forage quality can be measured in laboratories, which is the most reliable way, but farmers also need to be able to make visual assessments of crops. Was the forage well-preserved, is the smell good, how is the ratio between stems and leaves, what are the estimated energy and protein levels, is the corn in maize silage broken and are there enough maize kernels, is the fibre still digestible, are there any contaminants in the forage? Many different aspects have to be checked. When forage is purchased the quality should match the price. When the forage is produced on the farm, lessons can be learned to reach the best quality.

Planning of forage requirements and cultivation plans will be included as each year the farmer will have to calculate how many hectares are required for each crop to meet the requirements of his herd and have some surplus in case harvests are lower than expected. Purchase of feed is best done shortly after the harvesting period and not when a shortage occurs on the farm.

Rainfed crops are suitable for some areas, but often irrigation is required to obtain satisfactory yields. Various options are available, such as sprinklers, drip irrigation or pivots. As water resources are limited, the choice of system and crops have to be water efficient.

Depending on farm size, own mechanisation can be more attractive than making use of available contracting services. It might also be an option to share certain farm machines to reduces investments and lower the costs per hectare. The range of available farm machinery is very large, as is their capacity. Examples will be provided for a complete cultivation process – from soil preparation to harvesting and conservation.  

As the number of potential fodder crops is very large, this chapter will not include detailed cultivation descriptions. It might be an option to make these specifically per region or to refer to available guides and manuals.

6. Reproduction and Breeding

The first priority of a farmer is the annual calving of his cows, as this means (more) milk and a replacement heifer or a bull to fatten and sell. The next priority is to improve the genetic level of the herd for characteristics that benefit the health of a cow: e.g. udder, legs, milk yield, general conformation – and that are of economic importance.

A basic understanding of the reproductive organs of a cow and the oestrus cycle are needed to manage and assess reproductive performance. Why is it important to have annual calving intervals and how can we reach this objective?

Heat detection is essential to start with and after explaining the four phases of the heat period, the various systems for heat detection are discussed. This part finishes with explaining why in some situations it may be advisable to postpone insemination till another heat period and the possible causes why a cow gets in heat again.

The next part is about the process of artificial insemination: when should a cow be inseminated and what should a farmer do to get the best results. What are the tasks of the inseminator (e.g. he should be sure that the cows is indeed ready to be inseminated). Not all cows will be pregnant after a first insemination and farmers will learn what is a ‘normal’ conception rate after insemination and for what reasons.

Recording is an essential aspect of fertility management (either manual or preferably with use of a farm management program) as this also allows the farmer to analyse the reproductive performance and to make adjustments where needed. The various systems will be discussed and examples provided of recordings tools.

Data and key-indicators make it possible to measure identify the results of fertility management. Here we mention calving intervals, interval calving to 1st insemination, interval calving to conception, number of inseminations, etc.  A farmer can select some parameters to see if reproductive performance meets his standards at herd level and/or if delayed calving intervals are caused by a few cows that should have been sold earlier.

Fertility problems can have many causes and this part of the chapter covers a range of common problems that a farmer or advisors can help to identify. In some cases, the need of a veterinarian will be required to make the right diagnosis or give treatment, but the knowledge provided here makes the farmer realize that action is needed.

The last part deals with breeding goals and how these goals can be obtained (which traits to improve, what breeding program to use and which cows to be replaced first). Culling rates have an impact on rearing cost and genetic progress: too many problem cows on a farm delay genetic improvement and increase cost. Sire selection (either progeny tested or own bulls) has to be a well-considered choice of the farmer.

7. Animal Health

As prevention is better than cure, the first part of this module will focus on the signs of health and how to avoid diseases through care and management. Adequate feed, water, air, light, rest and space are all essential for cows to remain healthy. What does a healthy cow look like and how can we detect health problems? Cow signals are important: a farmer must observe, think and then act. Pictures show what to look for in the barn and make clear what cows need. In addition, bio-security is covered in this part of the chapter. How can we prevent disease transmission from outside the farm and what measures can we take to control them on the farm (e.g. by hygienic conditions and combatting flies).

The second part will cover the main metabolic disorders: in a few sentences we give the cause, occurrence, symptoms and prevention for each common disorder. This topic is closely related to the lessons on nutrition and covers ketosis, fat cow syndrome, retained placenta, laminitis, bloat, displaced abomasum and milk fever. All these disorders can produce an acute, temporary, but potentially fatal deficiency. 

The next chapters cover the following health problems:

Mastitis occurs on all farms and can be chronic or acute. Signs of acute mastitis are described, but chronic mastitis is far more common and has to be detected early. The main causes of mastitis (various types of environmental and contagious bacteria are discussed. Prevention is the main part of this topic, to begin with good milking practices, hygiene and avoiding stress. Treatment, both curative as preventive at drying off, concludes this section.

Hoof problems are another common problem and have various causes that will be discussed. Prevention always is the best medicine: regular hoof care and dry claws make a large difference in occurrence. Scoring of claws and the basics of hoof care will be included, as farmers can do this themselves. A hoof care specialist may be needed for more complicated cases.

Internal and external parasites can cause great damage and have to be prevented through regular care and preventive treatment. We discuss various worm infections and coccidiosis (internal parasites) and flies, lice, ticks and mites as the main external parasites. Tick borne diseases are especially dangerous for, often imported, high-yielding cows. Flies are not only a nuisance for cows and young stock, but they also transmit many infectious diseases. Early fly and larvae control and good hygiene are important.

Another group of diseases that will be briefly discussed are some common viral and bacterial infections, such as BVD, IBR, FMD and Leptospirosis, Paratuberculosis and Brucellosis.

The last section of this module will discuss the use of medicines and vaccination protocols. The use of medicines should be limited where possible, especially antibiotics (prevent bacteria to become resistant). Vaccination programs differ per country and in some cases it is recommended to do even more than officially required.

8. Milking and Milk Quality

A daily routine for which not only the right choice of milking equipment is important, but even more so the use of correct procedures for milking and milk handling. This module covers:

The cow and udder development: the udder and its development during the life of a cow. Udder quality is important (e.g. body conformation and breeding goals) and clear pictures show how milk is produced and discharged. Udder health is influenced by housing systems and milking routines (e.g. proper adjustment of milking machines, no blind-milking, disinfection after milking). Mastitis is dealt with in the chapter on Animal Health, but also included in this chapter, especially concerning preventive measures.

Milking Equipment: this starts with the basic principles of vacuum and pulsation, followed by a complete pipeline installation with bucket milking and direct milk pipelines to the cooling tank. The systems are explained in detail and apply to all types of milking parlours. Examples of a range of milking parlours are already provided in the chapter on Housing and the choice depends on farm size, local availability and service system. Cooling the milk as soon as possible after milking is essential to maintain the quality and recommendations are provided.

Milking Procedures: cow preparation, milking techniques (manual and machine), and working procedures are explained. In parlours with more cows and milkers a strict routine is important to ensure that the claw is connected in time to make the best use the oxytocin that stimulates milk let-down and removed in time to avoid teat-damage. Handling cows (stress-free!) is a point of attention as well.

Milk Quality and Composition: most dairy companies have strict quality standards that determine acceptance and price. Fat and protein content mainly determine the price, while biological quality can result in a bonus (low bacteria and somatic cells). Milk with antibiotics and/or other contaminants is rejected. This part clearly explains what should not be included in milk and how it can be avoided. Milk composition is influenced by several factors (e.g. season, nutrition, health, age) and an understanding of these changes and how some of them can be influenced is explained. Producing high quality milk is only possible if the cleaning procedures for milking equipment are strictly followed.

Milking Machine Maintenance: regular maintenance and identification of problems covers the last part of this chapter. What are the daily, weekly, monthly and annual routines for maintaining the equipment in good condition and how can a farmer detect if this is not the case, before damage is done to his cows. Testing by a competent expert should take place at regular intervals.

9. Young Stock Rearing

'Today’s calf is tomorrow's cow' is a common saying and calf rearing already starts with good care of the pregnant cow. This module will cover the whole period from birth to maturity, divided over the following sections:

The need for replacement cows and age of calving: how many pregnant heifers do we need per year. This is based on 2 main criteria: the number of sick, unproductive cows that have to be replaced and the wish to improve the genetic potential of the herd by bringing in better cows. Which percentage of the herd does a farmer replace each year depends on the productivity and longevity of the cows: do we cull 50% of the young cows because their yield was disappointing or can we keep cows in production for 5 or more years. Farm management plays a decisive role.

Another target to set is the age at 1st calving. Should the growth age make it possible that the heifer calves at 24 months of age or do we prefer later calving. And what are the consequences of such a choice. The optimum rearing schedule, target weights and how to reach them will be discussed in this part.

The calving process: a good start for mother and calf is important, so the second part of the chapter explains how to prepare the cows before calving, the process of a normal calving (and what to do or not to do). Abnormal positions of the calf sometimes occur and recommendations are provided what a farmer can do himself or if assistance from a veterinarian is needed.  After care for calf and cow is important for a good start and explained (e.g. stimulation of breathing, colostrum feeding, umbilical cord disinfection, lukewarm water for the cow).

From birth till weaning is a period when the calf needs close care and attention. We can distinguish the colostrum period and the milk period, with additional concentrates and forage. Calf diarrhoea (types, cause and treatment) and lung infections have to be prevented by proper housing and feeding. Housing of calves and young stock is also dealt with in the chapter on 'Housing', but some overlap is a good reminder.

The moment of weaning is important for a calf and has to be carried out in the correct way with minimum stress and a smooth transition from milk to a dry feed diet. Growth should continue at the targeted level. Often the period from 3 to 6 months of age is a difficult one, as the rumen is not fully developed yet and a balanced diet is needed.

The growing period from 6 – 24 months is often easier: growth targets can be followed by meeting the feed requirements and a correct body condition. The age of insemination (usually at 14-15 months in high-productive cattle) should be well-timed and the last step in the rearing period is the preparation for the 1st calving and subsequent lactation.

10. Farm Economics

A clear insight in costs and revenues is essential to make timely modifications in farm management. Investments need to be made that are financially and technically justified and farm profit is necessary to make these investments.

After a short introduction on economic factors and the calculation of commercial and fiscal profit and loss accounts, we will start with a detailed analysis of Gross Margins. We will discuss how a farmer can increase revenues and/or reduce his direct cost. Revenues mainly depend on yield, quality, milk and meat prices, animal health, and reproductive performance. External factors are more difficult to influence, internal factor are more in control of the farmer.

Increasing revenues can be realised by the farmer through higher yields, more cows or better-quality milk (resulting in a higher milk price). Market prices are more difficult to change, as this is influenced by external conditions (feed prices, raw milk prices, etc.)

Nutrition is a major cost item, so we have to look at the prices for energy and proteins, the ration, the cost of purchased feed compared to home grown feed/forage, etc. Feed losses can perhaps be reduced or feeding systems made more efficiently. Another major cost is the rearing of replacement heifers, in combination with reproduction and animal health. All these aspects will be analysed with examples, calculations and clear recommendations.

Last but not least: recording is the basis for analysis. In previous chapters the need for recording was already mentioned, but here we specifically look at gross-margin calculation in combination with the technical parameters and key indicators. What data are essential and how can we organise this efficiently. Farm management programs are available even for a small farm and much more effective than handwritten records.


Date: TBD

Type: Hybrid

Topic: Dairy

Level: Basic


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Dan Redford