HUMBIRD, Wis. -- It’s a team effort. Keeping the 450-cow milking string happy and healthy while averaging milk production in the mid-90s per day is no easy feat. But for Pam Selz-Pralle and Scott Pralle that accomplishment is the result of several factors. Those factors include good management, quality facilities and proper nutrition. They also include a team that never stops asking how to improve cow comfort and health.

“At our staff meetings it is all about the cows,” Pralle said.

Most of the eight employees have worked at the dairy for more than a decade. All are well-trained at understanding cow needs.

“We are fortunate to have a team that cares about what they do and cares about the cows,” he said.

Selz-Pralle and Pralle decided to expand their operation in 1998 from 120 cows to 450 cows. It was a significant investment for a farm that can trace its roots back more than 100 years in the Humbird area.

“This was great-grandpa’s farm,” Selz-Pralle said. “The original farm was made up of 18 small farms who came from the same village in Germany.”

Expansion requires expert advice

Expansion isn’t as simple as building a bigger facility and adding cows. It also means ensuring cows are healthy and comfortable. In addition to experienced employees, nutritionists work closely with the farm.

Tim Thompson, senior dairy specialist with Provimi, has worked with Selz-Pralle and Pralle for more than 16 years.

“When I first started working with Pam and Scott there were a lot of things we needed to address,” Thompson said. “The first thing we looked at was overall nutrition and cow comfort.”

Jim Weber, dairy specialist at Northside Elevator, said the goal was to remove bottlenecks that were impacting production.

“We looked at everything, consistently checked the feed, and looked at all the ingredients that were being put into the feed,” he said.

Within three to four months of working with Thompson and Weber the improvements were nothing short of dramatic, Pralle said.

Hoof health brings benefits

Hoof health is a main focus on the Selz-Pralle Dairy. Ensuring heifers start with a sound hoof means a healthier animal that’s more comfortable. It also means fewer hoof problems when the animal is in the milking string.

“Hoof health starts back with the calf,” Thompson said. “Too often a diet is not properly balanced and the hoof is where everything can go wrong.”

The couple says they believe foot health drives dry-matter intake.

“A first-calf heifer that comes in with a sound hoof can comfortably stand at the feed bunk, compete and focus on milk production,” Selz-Pralle said. “Every time hoof integrity is compromised it causes discomfort. That translates to lower production and issues down the road.”

Weber said, “It is critical to have good foot health in order to maintain these high milk and component numbers.”

Feed-formulation help critical

Using feed-formulation software, Weber said, cows can average another 3 to 5 pounds of milk.

“We are able to use three different types of carbohydrate fractions and fiber, plus select the most efficient combination of protein feeds to meet microbial requirements,” he said. “In 2019, with drier corn silage, we are adding straight corn starch and ground barley.”

Drier corn silage had Selz-Pralle and Pralle focusing on butterfat and protein. During the first half of 2019 the herd has averaged 98 pounds of milk, 4.55 pounds of butterfat and 3.2 pounds of protein. That translates into 114 pounds of energy-corrected milk with 7.6 pounds combined fat and protein.

In addition to balancing carbohydrates and protein in the feed, the dairy added a performance trace-mineral product developed for use in dairy and beef. It's designed to improve health from the inside-out.

New tech offers cow data

Adding a monitoring system has allowed Selz-Pralle and Pralle to collect significant amounts of data on every cow.

“The daily activity monitors are key for us,” Pralle said. “(The system) quickens our response time to health issues. We now catch ailments before they become clinical.”

It’s a system that also shortens hands-on time with the cows.

“We can identify the cows that need to be treated and focus on them without disturbing the entire herd,” he said. “Cows left alone are under less stress.”

But the technology hasn’t changed their overall approach, which is listening.

“Technology makes us better listeners to know what the cows are telling us,” Pralle said. “They will let us know if they are under stress. The key is identifying a problem early and making a correction.”

Sand bedding adds comfort

Cow comfort took a major turn for the better when the farm switched its bedding source. The farm’s location near several fracking-sand suppliers means a good supply of quality bedding sand that has been rejected by miners.

“All sand is not equal,” Pralle said. “We started with river sand and it had small pebbles in it. Then we were getting sand with clay in it. The sand would sit in the back of the stalls. Our somatic-cell counts shot up and we had mastitis problems.”

Everything turned when the farm switched to fracking sand.

“Cow health got better almost immediately,” he said. “Treating for mastitis is a rare event now.”

And the cows lie around more, minimizing movement and stress. That translates into more milk production.

Don't settle for average

“We are very self-critical when it comes to our cows,” Selz-Pralle said. “We never want to settle for average so we are always asking what we can do to make the cows more comfortable, improve their health and get them to produce more milk, economically. We look for the marginal milk improvements that take advantage of the technology and capital we have invested to take care of the cow.”

Genetics is also a part of the farm’s focus. Strong herd genetics leads to better milk production.

“We look for cows with good dairy strength, good locomotion, good udders,” Pralle said.

For the past two years the farm has also looked at the component aspect of their production, striving for a combined fat and protein of 7 pounds or more.

Selz-Pralle said, “We breed for cows that fit our management style and our facility. We like decathletes … cows that have the strength to go the distance while still being a top producer.”

In a herd of excellent-producing cows they have the best. When Selz-Pralle Aftershock 3918 produced 78,170 pounds of milk, 3,094 pounds of butterfat and 2,393 pounds of protein in a single lactation she set the national milk-production record.

“And she did it rather quietly,” Pralle said. “By providing a stress-free environment, focusing on cow care and utilizing technology, cows like 3918 will silently perform to the maximum of their genetics. In this case she achieved the best in the world.”

The working relationships with their nutritionists continue.

“The bottom line is that Pam and Scott trust what we are doing, and we are all on the same team to ensure that the cows are healthy and productive,” Thompson said.

Weber said he agrees.

“We all work to provide what the cow needs to be productive,” he said. “We work to ensure that every component in the ration is providing a payback on herd health and productivity. Everything we do has a strong reason behind it.”

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Mark Moore has more than 30 years of experience in agricultural communications, including writing, photography, public relations and advertising. His diverse background includes agricultural newspaper reporter, news-service editor and commodity-newsletter editor. Visit www.mooreagphotos.com for more information.