Wednesday, 06 September 2017 08:06

Bigger not always better in Canada

Written by  Stephen Cooke
Alltech nutritionist Elder Petherick with Alberta farmer Cregg Nicoll on Cregg’s farm. Alltech nutritionist Elder Petherick with Alberta farmer Cregg Nicoll on Cregg’s farm.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better for Canadian dairy farmer Cregg Nicoll, who is constantly assessing his farm in a bid to find the optimal number of cows and maximise production from them.

The fourth generation farmer’s family has owned the farm near Coalhurst, just west of Lethbridge, in southern Alberta, for 100 years, and are currently milking 350 cows.

Country restrictions prevents them from expanding the size of their herd on their farm.

“We looked at the possibility of starting a new farm over the road, but where I’m at, it’s too big of an investment in my dairy career,” Cregg said. “In this area, you’re looking at about $10,000 an acre. As long as milking 300-350 cows is efficient and profitable, we’ll stay here.”

The cows are housed on the 500 acre (200 hectare) family farm, of which 250 acres (100ha) is cropped. They own 900 acres (360ha) of additional land and lease more. They are completely self-sufficient, growing all their own feed, including feed corn silage, barley silage, alfalfa hay, alfalfa silage and barley grain. They purchase protein supplements.

Cregg returned to the family farm in 1996 after completing university. He became a partner in 1998 and the business was expanded.

“We were milking about 130 and wanted to expand to 250. We built a barn for with 264 stalls, extended the parlour and proceeded to grow the herd.

“As we grew, we found 275-300 was our optimum. We then expanded to 350 to try and increase efficiency. When increases in quota came along, we said, ‘let’s get bigger’.”

The Nicolls increased the herd and installed straw packs (straw bedding) to accommodate cow numbers.

“We became better managers as we increased in size and held that level of 400 milking cows for 12 months. Then we noticed milk was going down, breeding performance was down and culling rates were going up. When you increase cow numbers, you reach a tipping point where marginal returns go the other way. So we made the decision to go down 50 cows.”

They now milk 350 cows, with all cows housed in the barn and all young stock housed outside. Cows remain in the barn all year. They can venture outside into exercise lots but there is no outside grazing.

Cow groups

To maximise production with 350 cows, the herd is separated into four groups – a fresh group (cows with 30 days of milk and lower); a sick pen; a high group and a low group (primarily pregnant cows).

With feed costs making up to 30% of the total cost of production, the Nicolls have also run high and low groups of cows to save money. The high group receives a different ration, with higher energy and a little more bypass protein. This ration costs $8.80 per cow compared to $7.70 for the low group.

All lactation cows receive the Alltech product, Optigen (called Optisync in Australia), a non-protein Nitrogen (NPN) source that enables improved feed conversion through the provision of nitrogen for the rumen microbes. Optisync drip feeds nitrogen consistently over the whole day, which Alltech says helps better diet utilisation, rumen health and fermentation.

Cregg worked with Alltech nutritionist Eldon Petherick on the benefits of milking a fresh group in 2016 and analysed the results over 12 months.

“We had done some research and wanted to see if we could drive peak milk production. We were happy with the success so we kept going with it. Outside of about one month in summer time, this group performed well at 100 days of milk.

“We feed them high level of bypass and different energy sources instead of starches. We separate them, then move them back into the high group.

“If we were much smaller, it wouldn’t be worth it, but at our size we can take advantage of it.”

The success of the ‘fresh group’ has led to a new conundrum for the Nicolls. The fresh group shares a facility specifically built for pre-calving cows. Cregg now thinks it’s a little too crowded for the calving group and may drop back to 300 milkers.

“When we built this facility – cows were calving well, transitioning well, moving into the parlour then milking well, but extra numbers have stopped that.”


The Nicolls produce their own silage and aim to carryover 10-15% of each commodity each year.

They average 18t/acre for corn silage, 9-11t/acre for barley silage, 6t/acre for haylage on three cuts. They silage the first two cuts of haylage then bale the third cut. They produce 5000t of corn silage, 3000t of alfalfa silage and make up the difference with barley silage.

It is all mixed on farm for feed.


The Nicolls recently purchased a DeLaval Herd Navigator to assist their breeding. It is attached to the dairy and reads progesterone levels from samples of milk. It will also detect LDH as a warning for subclinical mastitis.

The Nicolls perform their own AI and prioritise udders, with feet and legs the next consideration.

“We need cows with square udders, they milk out quick and easy, and then the cows are done and off they go.”


Calves are placed in calf boxes for 8 weeks before they are weaned, then moved into group pens of between 5 and 10 head. From here they are moved into a barn in groups of 50.

Calves are fed milk (3 ½ litres per feeding) and a starter ration (a corn/oats/protein pellet) comprising 20% protein.

Alltech funded Stephen Cooke's trip to the Alltech ONE COnference and North American tour.

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