Face facts, ex-farm milk prices are unlikely to rise significantly in the coming years, therefore, the only way to improve nett profits is to expand cow margins through improved genetics and herd health.

That was the overwhelming viewpoint of American dairy farmers, Lloyd and Daphne Holterman of Rosy Lane Holsteins, Wisconsin, who said the only way to bolster the bottom line is to focus on reducing maintenance and replacement costs and concentrate on breeding healthy cows that will produce four and five lactations.

“This is the fifth consecutive year of very low milk prices in America, so we have had to focus on what works and what doesn’t so we no longer classify and we breed cows that will reduce our costs of production,” said Mr Holterman who was speaking at an AHDB dairy meeting in Stirling, on Monday.

“Pinpoint the problem that is holding you back and concentrate on breeding the type of cattle you need to achieve that. Your AI technician doesn’t know what your issues are, only you know what you want to achieve.

“We have found that if you breed only for type, production suffers. We don’t want Miss America show cows, we want tough, hard wearing cows that are resistant to mastitis and cows with increased longevity,” he said.

“Type has been over selected in many farms and while we don’t want ugly cows, high type cows are often too big and are not the best on their legs. We want cows with a good productive life,” Mr Holterman said adding that Oman has had the biggest influence on the unit, with more than 700 milking daughters in the herd.

In selecting sires with good resistance to disease, the couple who farm a three times daily milking herd of 1100 Holsteins in partnership with Jordan Matthews and Tim Strobel, have significantly reduced calving problems and levels of mastitis. Last year their herd saw just three displaced abomasums, with mastitis appearing once every three or four weeks. They’ve not had a case of ketosis in the past eight years.

More impressive is the fact that they have not used antibiotics to treat mastitis for more than five years. Having culled out many of the worst offenders and using sires with high resistance to mastitis for more than a decade, there are now few if any issues.

Hygiene throughout the cow shed, calving area and in the parlour is nevertheless paramount to maintaining such low levels of mastitis. When it does appear, cows are treated with extra fluids.

“Mastitis is all dependent on the pathogens present and 70% of cows will get rid of it themselves with extra fluids and improved hygiene,” said Mr Holterman pointing out that the team are big believers in supportive therapy, with infected cows treated with fluids, electrolytes and yeast in the form of IVs and or drenchs with a hypertonic saline for three days.

According to the Holtermans, the key to reducing mastitis is on-farm milk culturing, with virtually every case of clinical mastitis that has occurred in the herd having come from Klebsiella and E. coli – neither of which typically responds well to antibiotic treatment.

Beyond that, the no-treat approach is the end result of a management philosophy that emphasises strong immunity and clean, comfortable cows that calve in a low-stress environment.

Both pre-and post-fresh pens are stocked at 85% to reduce stress, with the healthiest cows moving into the lactation groups 15-21days after calving.

Improved cow comfort also alleviates stress so alleys are scraped three times a day. Cubicles are raked at each milking and fresh, washed sand is applied twice a week.

The herd is milked in a double-12 parallel parlour, equipped with an Afi-Milk system that detects milk conductivity.

Extra LED lighting directly under the splash pan also helps to show any dirt on the udders and teats of cows, thereby improving levels of hygiene.

Cows are left to calve by themselves too. Cows calving are checked in the early stages to make sure the calf is coming the right way and all going well, is left for up to seven hours to calve themselves.

The team also make a point of having all deliveries sent to the farmhouse office instead of the cow shed for improved biosecurity, with regular milk testing in the bulk tank to ensured continued eradication of Staph aureus and Mycoplasma bovis bugs.

In doing all of the above, vet bills have more than halved – from 3.2p per litre in 2008 to 1.1p per litre in 2018.

“Focus on breeding healthy cows to reduce costs and improve margins. Replacement rates are the hidden thief,” said Mr Holterman who has seen replacement rates fall to 26% over the years, which he hopes to curtail further to 20%.

The goal at Rosy Lane is to produce 1.7litres of milk from 1kg of dry matter of TMR fed to cows, and while the herd has only achieved that once, they are not far off that figure with most month’s showing 1.67-1.68litres produced based on a diet of 49% forages.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, with average milk prices ranging from 29-31p per litre in the US, and the cost of producing a litre of milk at 27.7p based on feed costs of 13p and 6.5p per litre, Mr Holterman said the way to improve profit margins is to select sires for their feed efficiency, fat, protein, resistance to mastitis and lameness, livability and calving ease.