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Are You Lagging or Leading on Your Dairy?

University of Minnesota Extension, Stearns County News
February 24, 2016        
Source:  Emily Wilmes, Extension Educator-Livestock
University of Minnesota Extension
Stearns, Benton & Morrison Counties

Are You Lagging or Leading on Your Dairy?
By Emily Wilmes, University of Minnesota Extension

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (02/24/16) — Dairy farmers know that herd records are important. Monitoring the key indicators of individual cow or herd performance can shed light on emerging problems and help producers make the best management decisions. But are we monitoring the right things?  As Jeff Reneau, retired Extension Dairy Specialist writes, “Economists for years have used the terminology of leading and lagging indicators to describe factors predicting the direction of the economy. Leading indicators are predictive of the future performance whereas lagging indicators are historical confirmation of past performance. Proactive dairy managers need to put more focus on monitoring leading indicators of performance. A focus on leading indicators positions you to take corrective action before, not after, problems occur. It's not that lagging indicators are bad, it's just that they are too slow.”

Many dairy performance measures that are currently used are what would be classified as lagging indicators.  The 21-day pregnancy rate is thought to be the best overall measure of herd reproductive success. But since its computation occurs several weeks after the management activity that resulted in pregnancy, it is by definition a "lagging indicator" of herd reproductive performance.  The 21-day estrous detection rate is closer to the management action and tells us more about the success of detecting cows in heat and breeding them but it is still a lagging indicator. Are there measures further upstream that could be more timely predictors of herd reproductive success? Fresh cows with negative energy balance, high SCC, and fat-to-protein ratios greater than 1.4 have poorer reproductive performance. These may be more effective leading indicators of herd reproductive performance.

Mastitis is assessed by SCC level and counting the number and severity of clinical mastitis cases. However, since both are measured after the mammary gland infection has already occurred, they are also "lagging indicators". Some potential "leading indicators" are not always high-tech. Cow hygiene score and bulk tank milk culture results are certainly "leading indicators" of environmental mastitis and are already being used. Teat end condition as well the completeness and consistency of teat dip application are also important leading indicators of mammary gland health.

Leading indicators of evolving problems are often more general in nature and not specific to any specific disease or condition. A good starting point is to review the reports and data you are using right now. Justify why you're using those reports. Ask yourself, do the reports provide insight into the causes of potential future problems or do they just confirm of past performance?  Consider how you can use leading indicators to stay ahead issues on your dairy.


Emily Wilmes
Extension Educator, Ag Production Systems - Livestock
(320) 255-6169
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