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Today’s perspective on grouping strategies

Jan. 17, 2013 | 0 comments


With the price of milk a little weak and feed prices going up, grouping strategies and feeding TMR (total mixed rations) can offer dairy producers a way to capture more dollars.

Feeding a single recipe TMR is pretty popular, Dr. Mike Hutjens told a nation-wide audience during the Jan. 14 Hoard’s Dairyman webinar, "Today’s Perspective on Grouping Strategies" sponsored by Digi-Star.

A one group TMR is simple to mix and deliver, can reduce error in adding to the ingredients or delivering the wrong ration to the wrong pen, works for any herd size, saves labor and allows the ability to top off feed bunks, the veteran Extension dairy specialist noted.

Multiple Group TMR

However, there are advantages to using several feed recipes for multiple group TMR. It can be economical, lowering the cost per hundredweight of milk and per cow, and can account for metabolic changes as cows advance in lactation and production.

Multiple group TMRs can provide feed and protein efficiencies, while helping dairymen navigate environmental restrictions. "We just aren’t going to be allowed to get rid of all this nitrogen and phosphorous found in a one group TMR that cows excrete in their urine and feces," Hutjens explained.

Multiple group TMRs are popular because they allow dairy producers to factor in bunk space, social interaction, space per cow, the size of holding pens and parlors, animal age and size, body condition scores and days in milk, Hutjens pointed out.

Research shows switching from a single group TMR to a two group TMR can give a 1-3 percent increase in fat corrected milk. Upping from two to three groups gives a two percent increase, and bumping from three to four groups gives about a one percent increase. More than four was not supported by research.

A survey in California found the more groups, the higher the milk production, Hutjens added, but dairy producers can and do get high production with a one-group TMR.

Different grouping methods

The data suggests grouping first lactation cows together pays off.

An older study found separating heifers from older cows can provide a significant increase in milk (almost 10 percent), while more recent work documented differences in heifers’ meal size, meal and resting bouts, rumination, milk yield and dry matter intake.

"Heifers have different eating patterns than older cows," Hutjens pointed out. "They behave differently when they’re amongst themselves."

Another approach, gearing off important metabolic factors such as gut fill and fermentation, splits high-producing cows off from low-producing cows.

With this grouping strategy, high cows are fed a little more starch and concentrates, the best forages, the highest NDFD such as brown mid-rib corn silage, a little more fat and lower amounts of by-products.

The low-group ration would then be built with different feed ingredients and different levels of feed. "This is an important point, one you need to be thinking about," Hutjens observed. "Our cows are different in terms of metabolics, and the age and parity of our cows are really big factors that you and I need to be thinking about in our programs."

When regrouping cows or "reshuffling the deck", Hutjens said the data shows it is likely a cow’s milk production will drop.

A British Columbia study monitoring mid-lactation cows for three days before and three days after a group change documented an eight pound drop in milk with recovery in three days. After the switch, cows spent 15 minutes less time eating, displacements increased, and the number of lying bouts and grooming dropped.

Illinois data on a small number of tie-stall cows moved to a group pen two or three weeks after calving showed the bovines lost about two pounds of milk a day and did not get it back within six days. Interestingly, lower-producing cows handled the switch better than the higher-producing animals.

A Danish study reported a four-seven pound in milk when shifting cows to a different group with the same ration. "That’s interesting - just moving cows prompted a drop in milk that they never got back," Hutjens commented.

Research suggests that cows should be moved before their maximum intake of dry matter is reached, meaning before they are 60 days in milk. It takes from three to seven days for social stability to come back.

When switching, it is better to move more than just one cow and to make the change at milking time. "That way, they’ll come out of the parlor and go to the feed bunk and won’t notice the new kid on the block," Hutjens explained.

There are usually less problem with regular moves if there is adequate bunk space. Avoid overcrowding, especially in heifer and high-producing pens, and expect a 2-4 percent drop in milk due to social instability. Keep first lactation cows in a separate group.


Economics of grouping

The economics of grouping for production levels means weighing the potential savings per cow per day in feed costs against the milk lost by shifting cows.

Crunching the numbers involved with different rations and different grouping, as can be done with Spartan 3, is not only interesting; Hutjens said, it will help illuminate whether it is worth it or not to move cows.

"Study the numbers," he advised. "This is a powerful tool that consultants should be working with on dairy farms. If you were consulting for me, I would demand that – what is my cost and what is the relationship to milk performance."

He applauded the grouping software program developed by Dr. Victor Cabrera, University of Wisconsin, which can be used to compare one group to two, three or four groups scenarios. The program, which gears off downloaded DHI herd data, uses up-to-date protein and energy costs and the current price of milk.

The program provides an "eye-opening" economic impact comparison for four options, Hutjens said. The "Cluster" approach groups cows with similar needs, "Dairy Merit" groups by milk yield and body weight; "FCM" groups by fat corrected milk; and "DIM" groups by days in milk.

Hutjens and the majority of reporting dairy producers favor the "Cluster" approach, with "Dairy Merit" ranked second and "DIM" considered fairly popular.

When net return per head per year is considered, "Cluster" and "Dairy Merit" offered the most money, he pointed out. "But this will vary depending on your herd and your production," he noted.

The program also details exactly what animals in a herd would be sorted into the chosen groups. "Pretty neat output, a fascinating tool," Hutjens said. "We intend to use this program in teaching classes."

The software spreadsheet can be found at http://dairymgt.info. Select "tools", then "feeding", then click on "grouping strategies".


Other grouping strategies

A survey of Hutjens’ national audience on the most important factor when grouping cows showed 59 percent favored grouping according to milk yield, while 34 percent favored parity (age/lactation number)

Another important component of grouping strategies is the lead factors. One study suggests the lead factor for a one group TMR should be 30 percent above the group average, 20 percent for two groups and 10 percent for three groups.

That means a herd with a 70-pound production average could be one group balanced for 91 pounds of milk or two groups balanced for 96 and 60 pounds of milk or three groups balanced for 99, 77 and 55 pounds of milk.

Another study suggests one standard deviation for the group of 8-17 pounds, while Minnesota data advises adding 12 pounds of milk to the average milk yield.

For the first lactation group, Hutjens noted, add 6-7 pounds of milk to the average milk yield to account for the animal’s continued growth.

Turning to weigh backs and shrink, Hutjens said if weigh backs are above five percent, they should go back to the cows, perhaps to a lower production group and balanced around or to steers, as is done at the University of Illinois.

"It makes really expensive steer feed, but the steers love it and do really well on it," Hutjens noted.

On occasion, challenge the cows with one additional pound of dry matter and monitor the response, he advised.

The bottom line is that multiple groups should be considered, given the current economic conditions, Hutjens concluded.

Even if a one-group TMR is used, cows can still be split into different pens by reproduction, parity, somatic cell count or, as is the case with Hoard’s Dairyman’s Holstein/Jersey herd, stage of lactation.

If allowed two groups, Hutjens would split young cows away from older cows. The problem here, he noted, is the facilities might lock out that option since few dairy herds are 50 percent heifers.

He would then add a fat cow group, followed by a split between early and late lactation mature cows via issues like milk yield and days pregnant.

"And if you gave me a fourth cow group, I would take a fresh cow group because I can do some pretty neat things with cow health, ingredients and additives", he concluded.

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