Understanding Opportunities and Risks Associated with Alternative Milking Strategies

Progress report for ONE20-360

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $29,737.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Vermont Extension
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Heather Darby
University of Vermont Extension
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Project Information

Summary:

Access to information on a diversity of production practices can help farmers successfully evaluate and implement practices that improve farm viability. One practice increasing in popularity is altering milking frequency. Farmers are interested in utilizing this practice to overcome labor challenges, financial stress, cow and farmer quality of life concerns. However, as decreasing milking frequency ultimately results in lower milk production, the cost savings and other gains attained through this system must outweigh the costs of lower production and potential changes in milk quality. As farm economics are impacted by so many farm management and external factors, it is critical that we better understand the considerations and impacts associated with these systems in the Northeast. To our knowledge there has been no alternative milking frequency research conducted in the US let alone the Northeast. Through a survey, this project will gather important data about the characteristics of northeast farms employing alternative milking frequencies. This project will also expand our existing production benchmarking, Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) testing program, and cost of production analysis gaining an additional 12 participants using alternative milking frequencies. The data gathered from the benchmarks will be used to develop metrics by which other interested farmers can make informed decisions. Further, webinars, on-farm workshops, conferences, and factsheets will be developed to aid farmers in understanding the risks and challenges associated with alternative milking frequencies as well as key factors leading to successful adoption of these practices to help them make successful management decisions.

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to understand the economic and production metrics for farms that have adopted alternative milking frequencies through implementing benchmarking on farms in the Northeast. This project benefits the farmers by strengthening their knowledge and providing them with decision making tools to assess the feasibility of adopting alternative milking frequencies on their farms,

 

Access to animal specific, high quality herd production and quality data through dairy herd monitoring programs is often too cost prohibitive, or perceived as such, for farmers to consistently use it for monitoring purposes. Although farmers have some idea of their production and quality, they don’t always know if they are on-par with other dairies of similar nature. Although there are currently available benchmarking programs for the dairy industry, these programs are typically offered through lenders with a heavy focus on financials and are not production system specific.

 

This project will create new information and benchmarks for farms currently or interested in utilizing alternative milking frequencies. The information and tools created will allow farmers to accurately decide if this practice is the right fit for the sustainability and viability of their farm.

Introduction:

As farms struggle to remain viable in today’s dairy economy, farmers are looking for innovative ways to adapt and diversify their businesses. Dairy farmers have largely relied on transitioning to management systems that offered higher milk prices such as certified organic or 100% grass-fed. However, as both of these systems rely heavily on grazing, additional land and labor are required. Finding qualified and reliable labor is challenging and may increase farm expenses beyond the benefits of the higher milk prices. Additionally, as more farmers are relying on off-farm income, looking to increase quality of life, or working on business succession, more flexibility in scheduling is desirable. As both organic and 100% grass-fed production systems already experience lower milk production than a conventionally managed dairy, many farmers have expressed interest exploring and/or adopting a once-a-day (OAD) or a three times in two days (3-in-2) milking schedule. A recent survey of grass-fed organic dairy producers found that 15% (n=167) of respondents were already using alternative milking frequencies on their farms. Interest in transitioning to alternative milking frequencies is rising throughout New England. During the summer of 2019, field days held at two farms utilizing alternative milking schedules (OAD and 3-in-2) drew over 125 farmers curious about this option. Unfortunately, there was little data available to answer farmer’s questions about the benefits and risks associated with these milking strategies. At the 2020 UVM Organic Dairy Conference, 76% (n=52) of attendees responding to a post event survey indicated they wanted to know more about characteristics and economics of farm’s implementing alternative milk frequencies.

 

These alternative milking schedules can theoretically lower labor costs and provide more time during the day for farm management tasks, other enterprises, or family time. But are these systems profitable? Studies have shown that reducing milking frequency from twice-a-day (TAD) to OAD reduces milk yield, fat, and protein yields (Rémond et al., 2004; Davis et al., 1999). Furthermore, some research shows minimal milk yield reductions if milking intervals remain <18 hours (3-in-2). The economics of OAD milking, has shown to decrease farm operating expenses by an average on 25.5% in New Zealand (Anderle and Dalley, 2007).

As so many farm management and external factors impact farm economics, it is critical that we understand the risk/benefits associated with these alternative milking frequencies in the Northeast. Currently there is limited accurate information available to farmers interested in transitioning to an alternative milking frequencies. This project will expand our existing benchmarking and milk testing programs (DHI), gaining an additional 12 participants using alternative milking strategies that will contribute information on cost of production, farm production, and farm management data. From this information, we will develop and deliver outreach including 2 webinars, 1 conference, 2 on-farm workshops, and 3 factsheets that will aid farmers in understanding the risks and benefits associated with alternative milking frequencies.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Karl Brown - Producer
  • Cameron Clark - Producer
  • Sarah Flack (Researcher)
  • Sara Ziegler (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

Project objectives will be met through the following methods.

A survey will be administered to all northeast producers implementing alternative milking frequencies on their farms. Survey questions and implementation strategy will be designed using the Tailored Design Method (Dillman, 2000). If the grant is awarded, PI-Darby will gain survey method and tool approval through IRB at the University of Vermont. The survey will include questions about the use of OAD and 3-in-2 milking systems including time in the year the practices are employed, how long they have been in use on the farm, information needed and desired on the practices, and benefits/impacts realized from adopting the practices. As with past surveys, we will partner with the major regional milk buyers and certifiers to identify the mailing list of recipients and for communication support with their membership about participating in the survey. Survey results will be compiled and analyzed for significant Pearson’s Correlation Coefficients utilizing the SAS software’s PROC CORR procedure. Survey data will be summarized in a farmer friendly article that will be distributed to the survey recipients and to farmer publications. Results will also be highlighted at conferences and other regional outreach events. 

Twelve farms currently utilizing or transitioning to OAD or 3-in-2 milking strategies will participate in on-farm data collection and monitoring (DHI testing and benchmarking program) as well as financial analyses (Dairy TRANS Financial Analysis software, Iowa State University) to help develop comparisons to establish commonalities and address challenges and considerations of these alternative systems.

A SARE-funded project with team members Darby and Flack as Co-PI titled: Supporting the Grass-fed Milk Market in the Northeast with Education & Benchmarks (LNE16-345) established a benchmarking systems for grass-fed dairy farming. A group of 22 grass-fed organic dairy farms have been submitting data for the past 3 years.  In 2018, an online benchmarking program was developed through the USDA OREI program (2018-51300-28515) and has expanded the reach of the original grass-fed benchmark program to a national scope. The online program can be found at https://agconnect.herokuapp.com/participant/5e5819ea5ce5390004c9d89e/respond. This project is further expanding this benchmark program to collect data on farms the employ alternative milking frequencies.

Twelve farms employing OAD or 3-in-2 milking strategies will be enrolled in monthly production benchmarking and DHI testing programs. Farms will be identified and recruited through our current network of farmer contacts and advertisement through farmer publications, milk buyers, and outreach events.

In the DHI testing program, farmers gain access to monthly milk testing services in which milk yield, components, quality (SCC, MUN), and reproductive performance (calving interval) data are collected for each cow currently milking that month. This provides the farmer with a very detailed snapshot of their herd and can provide insight into breeding, culling, and milk withholding decisions which can significantly impact herd success and economic return both in the short and long term, especially under alternative milking schedules. Every quarter, farmers will receive reports summarizing their farm’s data and showing comparisons to other participants. They will also have opportunities to discuss results with the researchers and one another through in person outreach events and/or virtual discussion groups. The DHI testing program will be cost shared through the grant program.

The cost of production data will be collected from the 12 farms yearly including financial data from 2019 (collected in 2020) and 2020 (collected in 2021). Dairy TRANS software was developed by Larry Tranel at Iowa State University and has been used by the UVM project team since 2018.Currently Dairy TRANS software is being used to collect cost of production data from over 30 grass-fed organic dairy farms. This data is being used to create a financial benchmark by which other grass-fed organic dairy farms can compare. Although our data set will be relatively small from this project it will allow us to develop an initial financial benchmark for farms using alternative milking frequencies. Once the data is collected, the farmer will immediately have access to a simple report outlining their farms income, expenses, and cost of production metrics and will compare that to current benchmarks for their respective production system (i.e. organic, grass-fed). Each year, data will be anonymously compiled and analyzed via descriptive statistics and correlations.

2020 Report

Sincethe grant was awarded we have notified our farmer partners and key collaborators and supporters of the award. The first step in the project is to complete a survey of dairy producers in the northeast to obtain information relating to the prevalence of use and interest in alternative milking strategies as well as challenges, barriers, and knowledge or resource gaps needed to successfully assess and adopt these strategies. In the fall of 2020, a draft survey was created and has been reviewed by two of our farmer partners.The survey and methods was submitted in November of 2020 to the University of Vermont Internal Review Board (IRB) for review and approval. The IRB met and requested some additional information and will meet again in January of 2021.

Logistics planning for survey deployment has been started between our team, milk buyers/cooperatives, and other outlets that will help advertise the survey. Both online through Qualtrics and mail-in options will be available.

A project announcement was created and posted to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association (NODPA) ODairy forum (510 subscribers) and Vermont Agriview agricultural newspaper (over 1000 recipients). Similar avenues will be used to distribute an announcement of the survey but will also be advertised on our program website and distributed directly through milk buyers/cooperatives. We expect to distribute the survey in February.

In December of 2020, the online benchmarking program was updated to include some specific questions geared towards farms that use alternative milking strategies. The next step will be to enroll 12 farmers using alternative milking strategies in our production benchmarking, DHI testing, and cost of production analysis programs. A list of potential participants known to be employing alternative milking strategies has been created and will be used in the new year to begin to recruit participants.

Research results and discussion:

2020 Report

The research and outreach program are in developed stages and there are no results to report at this time.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
1 Published press articles, newsletters

Participation Summary

5 Farmers
1 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Our project will combine a variety of educational strategies, fostering learning, adoption, and positive change on farms interested in altering milking strategies. We expect to reach at least 300 stakeholders through our outreach efforts.

Twelve farms currently utilizing or transitioning to OAD or 3-in-2 milking strategies will participate in on-farm data collection and monitoring (DHI testing and benchmarking program) as well as financial analyses (Dairy TRANS Financial Analysis software, Iowa State University) and comparisons to establish commonalities and address challenges and considerations of these alternative systems. This combined data (as well as general survey data) will be used to develop the outreach materials and highlighted at the events described below.

Annual organic dairy winter conference and one summer workshop per year held in VT or NY will serve as venues to educate dairy producers and service providers on the risks, considerations, and economic impacts associated with altering milking frequencies in the Northeast. Farmers involved in the benchmarking program will host field days and also participate in a conference farmer panel. Project team members will present aggregate data collected from the benchmarking and cost of production program. The organic dairy conference attracts 120 stakeholders per year. The on-farm field days will draw approximately of 80 stakeholders.  

A 2-part webinar series will be hosted to share the risks, costs, and benefits of altering milking strategies on dairy farms with a wider audience. The webinars will be hosted live to allow for participant interaction but will be archived and posted (www.uvm.edu/extension/nwcrops) to reach a larger audience. The webinar series will be attended by at least 100 stakeholders.

Information gained through the project will also be used to develop a factsheet series that will be posted at www.uvm.edu/extension/nwcrops.

Factsheet 1-An Introduction to Alternative Milking Systems- will provide a summary of the schedules, considerations for full- and part-time use, benefits, costs, and challenges associated with OAD and 3-in-2 milking schedules.

Factsheet 2-Is an Alternative Milking Strategy Right for You?- will serve as a farmer decision making tool, walking farmers through a series of questions designed to evaluate the fit of each strategy to the farmers’ goals and also provides economic and production considerations if the strategy is chosen.

Factsheet 3- Alternative Milking Strategy Case Studies- will provide descriptions of alternative milking strategies in use farms across the Northeast and will demonstrate the reasons the farmer adopted the strategy, challenges they experienced, tradeoffs they identified, and their satisfaction with the practice.

Report 2020

A Program Announcement was created and posted to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association (NODPA) ODairy forum (510 subscribers) and Vermont Agriview agricultural newspaper (over 1000 recipients). 

Our project team met in December 2020 to discuss outreach options for the winter of 2021. Given a need to deliver information virtually we have decided to plan at least 1 webinar focused on alternative milking strategies. 

We will also work on getting the 12 farmers enrolled in the benchmarking, cost of production, and DHIA programs.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.