NC_old2042: Management Systems to Improve the Economic and Environmental Sustainability of Dairy Enterprises (Rev. NC-1119)

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Inactive/Terminating


The US is home to 51,500 dairy farms and 9 million dairy cows. The profitability and sustainability of dairy farming depends on efficient management practices that result in maximizing milk production at a minimum monetary and environmental cost. Therefore, the focus of NC-1042 is to provide for collaborative research leading to dairy management strategies and systems to facilitate sustainable and profitable decisions by managers of milking cow and heifer enterprises.

Dairy farming is a highly integrated decision intensive system. It must rely on a systems approach to define options to maintain a profitable business, accountable to consumers for environmental impacts, product quality and animal well-being. Profitable decisions cannot be made without useful support systems.

Objective 1. Optimize calf and heifer performance through increased understanding of feeding strategies, management systems, well-being, productivity and environmental impact for productivity and profitability.

While practices of managing lactating dairy cattle occupy the greatest share of time, effort, and costs associated with dairy farming, the total costs of raising dairy heifers are the second largest contributor to the annual operating expenses of most dairy farms at ~20% of total expenses. This large contribution toward operating expenses would indicate that an opportunity exists to reduce whole farm expenses by reducing the expenditures on raising dairy heifers through improving nutritional management practices.

Dairy heifers comprise a significant and increasing portion of the U.S. dairy industry and have potentially significant environmental and economic impacts. The main goal of this objective is the enhancement of feed efficiency to reduce nutrient excretion and improve the environmental and economic sustainability of dairy calf and heifer enterprises through an increased understanding of the effects of feed management on their performance.

To meet the overall goals, this objective includes: 1.) Assessment of nutrient management, excretion, and retention in calves and heifers to determine measures of increased efficiency for either conventional or grazing animals; and 2.) Evaluation of feed ingredients and feed management strategies, such as limit-feeding, on calf and heifer growth and nutrient excretion and subsequent effects on lactation performance.

Dairy heifers have been traditionally fed diets where the great majority of the consumed nutrients derive from forages fed for ad libitum consumption where the fiber portion of the diet limits voluntary dry matter intake. Diets for heifers that contain less forage may be a logical and cost effective nutritional management practice. Previous studies utilizing limit-fed, lower forage diets for growing dairy heifers have shown that feed costs have declined by up to 16%, feed efficiency was improved from 9 to 30 % and manure output may be reduced by up to 40% compared to a high forage control diet. Additionally, heifer growth is unaffected and first lactation milk and milk component production are equal to heifers fed traditional, higher forage diets.

Reductions in the excretion of N and increases in the efficiency of N utilization have been observed when low forage diets are fed at energy intakes equal to high forage diets. Reducing the ruminal degradability of dietary protein has been shown to improve daily gain or growth efficiency in some studies. Research into the implementation of nutrient synchrony (N and carbohydrate) strategies to improve the efficiency of the N utilization in the growing dairy heifers is very sparse.

Varying the inclusion rates and types of feedstuffs in heifer diets are feed management strategies commonly evaluated to determine the best recommendations for improving feed efficiency and growth rates of dairy heifers. The increasing availability of alternative corn hybrids with enhanced nutrient values make feeding decisions more complicated.

Depending on the region of the US, high quality pasture may only be available for a few months out of the year and pasture alone often cannot meet the nutrient requirements for growth. Energy may have been a limiting factor in growth of dairy heifers grazed compared to those fed conventional diets. Little data are available evaluating supplementation of grazing heifers and comparing types of grazing systems to conventional feeding systems.

Increased understanding of the roles of feed management on feed efficiency and sustainability will provide information and analytical tools about management strategies that will increase sustainability and profitability of heifer operations.

Objective 2. Improve dairy cow management decisions through nutrient utilization, well-being and profitability.

Dairy management research is needed in the areas of well-being, nutrient utilization and profitability.

Dairy cattle well-being is directly related to farm profitability through reduced incidences of disease and disorder. Well-being is related to stocking density, grouping strategies, and milking procedures. The development and acceptance of robotic milkers need to be evaluated to study the reduction in stress.

Nutrient utilization can be enhanced through a more thorough understanding of fiber requirements potentially resulting in less cost to the dairy producer, and through the utilization of oilseeds which may have health and reproductive benefits to the cow. With the development of corn silage hybrids, understanding how to feed them is necessary to take advantage of these newly developed forages. These ideas could result in reduced cost to the producer through purchased grains, but also through improved reproductive efficiency and reduced purchased feed costs.

Agro-industrial co-products and alternative protein sources are major providers of nutrients for our nations dairy herd, continued understanding of how these feedstuffs should be fed to dairy cattle and their resulting impacts on performance needs to be evaluated.

Objective 3. Analyze whole farm system components and integrate information into decision-support tools to improve efficiency, enhance profitability, and environmental sustainability.

Integrated whole dairy farm systems evaluations are essential to capture component interactions conducive to more sustainable production systems. It is essential to evaluate dairy cows adaptation to their physical environment and management with the purpose of enhancing the efficiency and profitability while maintaining environmental stability. Therefore, reproduction, health, genetics, milk quality, cow comfort, and nutrition responses shall be integrated for developing decision support tools, which should include farm specific conditions such as location and seasonality.

The impacts of climate change on the economics of a dairy system have not been evaluated. Costs of production also vary across regions of the country and over time and analyses of these costs will help farm owners and lenders make better decisions related to the profitability of farms according to location, climate forecast, and market conditions. Models are available (i.e., the integrated farm system model, IFSM) to serve as platform of whole farms systematic analysis. , Data will be collected through farm surveys and official records to use and adapt existing models and to produce effective decision
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