David Harvatine, herd manager of Aurora Ridge Dairy in Aurora, N.Y., has seen the dairy farm he manages go from 65 cows to nearly 5,000 animals in just over 30 years.
And while it’s been a long, slow process of improvement, even after 30 years he sees room for getting better.
“No matter how old you are, you always have to be looking ahead, what’s the industry going to do,” he told a group of World Dairy Expo attendees.
Harvatine is a partner in the 5,200-acre farm that grows alfalfa, barley, corn, soybeans and other crops in rotation. The herd includes 2,350 milking and dry cows, and 2,250 young stock.
Change has been a constant on the farm, but given its location and the unique labor and market challenges facing New York dairy farmers, change is almost necessary.
Aurora Ridge Dairy is part of Cayuga Marketing, which was formed by a local group of central New York farmers who wanted to pool their milk and inputs to get a better price and bring costs down. The cooperative includes 29 farms that produce 1 billion pounds of milk per month.
Not satisfied with just pooling milk and resources, the farmers got into the processing business five years ago with the construction of a $100 million milk processing plant called Cayuga Milk Ingredients. Harvatine said the goal was to cut down on milk hauling costs to other plants. Cayuga Milk Ingredients specializes in powders, milk, cream and specialized blends of ingredients.
“We are very much going for the value-added side of the business,” he said.
Making quality milk
The cows at Aurora Ridge are milked three times a day in a double-28 Germania herringbone with Afimilk technology for better heat detection and detection of sick cows. The animals average around 95 pounds of milk a day, including 3.75% butterfat and 3.05% protein.
“We’re very focused on producing quality milk from our operation,” Harvatine said.
Waterbeds are used for cow comfort. The farm also has a methane digester where the dry solids are used for bedding.
Much of his herd’s performance he attributes to better use of genetics and genomic testing.
Before genomics, Harvatine said his goal was to breed for type, getting cows that he wanted to look at.
He focused on the top proven bulls in the herd and was very successful. But he wanted to improve feed efficiency and lower cost of production.
Harvatine turned to genomics to improve the herd and get what he calls that “perfect herd alignment” so that his cows are producing as many heifers as they need, not making as many heifers as possible and then culling the bottom.
All heifers are genomic tested. Between 100 and 130 heifer calves are born each month, and out of that number between 75 and 85 are kept for calving. He has a pool of 18 genomic young sires that he chooses from.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” he said, adding that he views semen as an investment, not a cost.
“For me, I’ve always been focused on breeding a herd vs. breeding individuals. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so if you’re pushing the whole herd, you’ll have more consistent performance overall,” he said.
Presynchronization and oysynch are used on less than 5% of his animals. He said this is a direct result of the herd improving genetically since he doesn’t have to do much synchronization.
Sexed semen is used on the heifer population. It was also used on the milking cows, but Harvatine said he wants to focus on improving all his animals, not just the top 10% or 15%.
Beef semen is used on the bottom 60% of cows, ones that average under 600 net merit average.
Harvatine ranks heifers based on genomic net merit. He looks at total performance index, PTA for producing milkfat and the somatic cell count index in evaluating the heifers. Harvatine said he was very focused on culling every animal with a 3.0 SCC score when they first got into genetics. Fast forward 10 years and he averages five or less clinical mastisis cows a year, he said.
“So, I see the actual results of what we’ve done,” he said.
Looking to the future
“I always say that I’m an internal optimist,” he said, especially in the face of a tough dairy market.
Harvatine said he wants a herd with high feed efficiency and high production of solids.
He also wants to use just sexed and beef semen.
But the key to surviving the future, he said, is embracing technology that will not only improve herd performance, but dairy management, too.
“It’s about trying to design a job for people that’s enticing, but also gives people the life they want to live, and that means making it possible for an employee to only work 40 hours a week,” he said.
Better herd performance will be critical, too. He sees genomics as a way to improve the health of his animals and have less of a need to use antibiotics or other interventions.
“It’s always about, ‘We’re doing a good job today, but how can you get better,’” he said.