Buying Dairy Cows - Some Suggestions for Beginning Dairy Producers

By the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Farm and Rural Services Bureau & Division of Animal Health. The financial success of a new dairy operation hinges on the quality and productivity of its cows. “Cheap” cattle can be very expensive if they enter your herd carrying diseases or contagious mastitis that can potentially infect the rest of your herd.
calendar icon 22 November 2007
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How $50 worth of testing could have saved one dairy operation more than $19,000

Susan and Jeff milk 100 Holstein cows in a tie stall barn. They are good managers; prior to their problems last fall they had a rolling herd average of 22,000 pounds and a bulk tank somatic cell count averaging 200,000. They treated one or two cows per month for clinical mastitis, a manageable level in their minds. Over the years they received quality awards from their milk plant.

Due to a poor heifer crop two years ago, they decided to purchase 10 cows to keep their barn and bulk tank full. They bought some milking cows from a neighbor and some from an auction. None of the cows were tested for contagious mastitis pathogens nor did they have any information on somatic cell counts for the animals. Six months after they introduced the new cows to the barn their bulk tank somatic cell count had climbed to 450,000 even though the cows never appeared sick. They were treating four or five cases of mastitis a month with limited success. Eight cows had to be culled for mastitis that would not respond to treatment.

Eight months later a bulk tank culture indicated moderate levels of staph aureus infecting the herd. Individual cow culturing indicated that about 20% of the herd was infected with staph aureus. Five of the purchased cows were infected with staph aureus and their monthly DHIA somatic cell counts indicated that they were high from the time of purchase.

What did this purchase cost them on an annual basis because of poor milk quality?

Loss from infected cows not producing as much milk @ $13.50/cwt      

Loss from unrealized milk quality premiums @ $.25/cwt

Loss from more cows being treated @ $90 per case

Loss from an increase in involuntary culls due to mastitis

Total opportunities lost from poor milk quality

Cost of doing individual milk culture for 10 cows


Purchasing Dairy Cattle -- General Guidelines:

Buy cattle from a single producer rather than individual animals from multiple producers. However, buying multiple cattle from one source can amplify the impact if there is a problem in the seller’s herd; it highlights the importance of testing cattle before purchase.

Request the right to reject any animal for questionable health status, blank quarters, lameness, bad attitude, or other reasons.

Purchase cattle that are being managed in a way similar to how you intend to manage them.

Most, if not all, of the animals you purchase should have been sired by AI bulls and bred to AI bulls.

Look for a herd that has been on a monthly veterinary herd health program. Ask for permission for your veterinarian to speak with the seller’s veterinarian.

A herd that has been enrolled in Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) testing is preferred.

Request vaccination records and health history for each animal you are purchasing. All animals should have:

  • Calfhood vaccination for brucellosis
  • Up-to-date J5 immunization against coliform mastitis
  • 9-way vaccination
  • 7-way clostridial vaccination

Before paying for the cattle, make sure that the seller has clear title and there are no liens against them.

Prior to Purchase:

Visually inspect all animals for heel warts, ringworm, skin warts, active pinkeye, number of teats, and condition of teats and teat ends. Ask to see forms, if available, filled out by the hoof trimmer with the types of lesions treated during routine hoof trimming. If hairy warts are present in the herd of origin, the purchased animals should be treated preventatively with an effective therapy.

Review bulk tank culture records for at least the past six months; take note of somatic cell count (SCC), standard plate count (SPC) and preliminary incubation (PI) count. SCC gives you a sense of the milk quality of the cows; SPC and PI give you a sense of the management quality of the seller. The average SCC should be less than 300,000 and preferably under 200,000. Standard plate count should be less than 5,000 and preliminary incubation count less than 10,000.

A bulk tank sample should be collected prior to purchase and tested for staph aureus, strep ag, and mycoplasma. Keep in mind that it will take a week to get the results. If the bulk tank culture is positive for mycoplasma, do not purchase any cows from the herd.

A staph aureus count of less than 50 cfm/ml in a bulk tank sample is considered to be acceptable. If the count exceeds that level, do not purchase from the herd. Individual culturing is not a reliable way to identify cows infected with Staph aureus.

Review the previous six month’s worth of DHI records. Only purchase animals with a somatic cell count less than 200,000 for six consecutive months.

Further Reading

       - You can view our press release on this subject by clicking here.

November 2007

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