Management, operational, animal health, and economic characteristics of large dairy herds in 4 states in the Upper Midwest of the United States

T. L. Evink, M. I. Endres

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Recent trends in dairy farm structure in the United States have included a decreasing number of farms, although farm size has increased, especially the share of milk production from very large herds (>2,500 cows). The objectives of this observational study were to describe common management practices; to characterize labor and operational structure; to measure some aspects of animal health, including lameness, hock lesions, mortality, and mastitis incidence; and to summarize cost of production on farms with more than 2,500 cows in 4 states in the Upper Midwest of the United States. The study included 15 dairy farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota. Farms were visited twice, once each year, and on-farm herd records were collected for those 2 yr. On-farm herd records were used to investigate mortality, culling, pregnancy rate, and clinical mastitis incidence. At least 1 high-producing pen of mature cows and 1 pen of fresh cows were scored for locomotion. Likewise, at least 1 pen of high-producing mature cows was scored for cleanliness and hock lesions. Median herd size was 3,975 cows (range = 2,606–13,266). Milk sold per employee was 1,120,745 kg and the number of cows per employee was 105. Eighty percent of the farms had Holstein cows, 13% had Jersey, and 7% had Jersey-Holstein crosses. All farms used artificial insemination as the sole form of breeding and 100% of the farms used hormonal synchronization or timed artificial insemination programs in their reproductive protocols; 21-d pregnancy rate was 21.7%. Median lameness prevalence was 18.3% and median severe lameness prevalence was 5.1%. Median hock lesion prevalence was 17.4% and median severe hock lesion prevalence was 1.9%; mortality rate was 7.4%. Clinical mastitis incidence was 62.5 cases per 100 cow-years. Feed costs accounted for approximately 53% of the total cost of producing milk, followed by labor at 11%, interest and depreciation expenses at 10%, and replacement costs at 9.5%. Herds in the top 50th percentile for profitability had a net income of $2.40 per hundredweight of milk sold compared with $0.95 per hundredweight for herds in the bottom 50th percentile. Although results of this study were helpful in understanding how large dairy systems operate in the Upper Midwest, more research is yet needed with a larger number of farms and wider variety of management practices to identify factors within these large farms that promote optimal animal health and profitability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9466-9475
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the dairy producers who collaborated in this study and USDA-Hatch (Washington, DC) along with anonymous donors for funding the project.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 American Dairy Science Association


  • dairy economics
  • large dairy herd
  • management practices


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