Commercial dairy systems range in size from small family farms to large commercial feedlot style production systems. Farms tend to be self contained. The farmer carefully controls and times reproduction in the cows because parturition is required to initiate lactation, such that most cows produce a new calf each year. Female (heifer) calves, conceived by using artificial insemination with frozen semen, replace older cull cows, and these ensure ongoing genetic improvement to the herd.
Profitable dairy farms require careful management of reproduction, nutrition, genetics, milk harvesting, and disease. Feed is a major cost of business and is generally a combination of home-grown forages (alfalfa, pasture) and purchased supplements such as grain. Most dairy farmers work closely with nutritional advisers, agronomists, and veterinarians to ensure optimal efficiency. Dairy farmers and their advisers use data on cow production, nutrition, reproduction, and health and milk quality to manage their business.
Outbreaks of disease requiring extended quarantines are a bane of dairy operations; dairy farmers will often opt to destroy an animal rather than expend resources to quarantine animals that cannot return an income (Canon, 2005). For example, many jurisdictions around the world have control programs for bovine Johne's disease (due to infection with Mycobacterium paratuberculosis). These generally require younger animals to grow separated from the adults, which necessitates the dedication of land, sheds, and equipment to this specific task and can limit the ability of producers to lease land from other land holders for growing young stock. The economic impact of these requirements is generally greater than is the impact of disease within the herd.
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