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3 Open Minutes with Ben Loewith of Joe Loewith & Sons Ltd.

Progressive Dairy Editor Walt Cooley Published on 31 July 2020

Ben Loewith farms in partnership with his father (Carl) and uncle (Dave) just outside Hamilton, Ontario. They farm 850 acres, with the help of custom operators, and milk 450 cows, averaging 45 to 46 kilograms of milk per cow per day.

Progressive Dairy Editor Walt Cooley recently interviewed Loewith for Progressive Dairy’s podcast (Ben Loewith: 100 pounds of milk per cow per day) to learn more about his management style, which includes a focus on cow comfort and protocols to operate above average. Here are excerpts from that interview. Find it online to hear the unabridged version.

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What experiences did you bring back to the farm after working in the painting business following university?

LOEWITH: I think being an employee and reporting to someone else really gives a valuable insight into how people want to be treated when they’re at work.

Consequently, I think one of the things I tried to bring to the farm is that it is results-oriented, especially when you have employees [who] are responsible for certain areas of the operation. At the end of the day, their job is to deliver the results, not to give reasons or excuses on why the results didn’t come in. When obstacles come in front of them, they have to mitigate and work around those obstacles so they still hit the outcome you’re looking for. Having said that, there sometimes are things that are difficult or impossible to work around.

The other thing I brought from my experience working in Toronto is that people want a certain level of control over their lives. I think, as dairy farmers, we tend to have this attitude that we work until the work is done. That’s fine when it’s your own operation, but it’s really kind of unfair to push that on other people who want to make plans on weekends or after work.

Your uncle once said, ‘Cows don’t come easy to you.’ Do you agree? How have you managed around it?

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LOEWITH: I 100 percent agree with that statement. I’m not a cow guy. I don’t have the ability to walk through the barn and instantly pick up cows that are compromised or instantly lay eyes on the best cow in the herd.

The cow side of it doesn’t come easy to me so, consequently, I rely on two things. One is: I rely heavily on data to help me make those decisions. It’s really important to me that everything that happens to every animal gets recorded in the computer. And the second thing I rely on is the expertise of people who do have that skill [including our longtime herdswoman who is phenomenal at those skills]. When [the people in the barn] tell me they don’t like the look of an animal and that something is wrong with her, they are given the time to do whatever they need to examine that animal. I would never say, “No, she looks fine to me.”

When you go to other farms, what are you interested in learning about?

LOEWITH: For me, it’s entirely what are your results and what protocols are you following in order to achieve those results.

If someone is getting better results than I am, my mind is saying, “OK, obviously you’ve got better protocols than I do.” What are your protocols? We’ll do our best to follow those protocols and see if we can’t get the same result you’re getting.

The biggest danger in the industry is people compare themselves to the average. I don’t care what the average is; I want to know what’s achievable, what the best in the industry are achieving in any benchmarks and then say, “OK, that’s the goal. That’s where we need to be. How do we get there?”

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How have you incorporated data and technology on your farm?

LOEWITH: Sometimes the simplest technology is the best. DairyComp is a very common software program, but it’s only as good as the data you feed into it. One of the things we’re really focused on is: Everything gets entered into DairyComp – every metabolic issue, every time a cow has her foot trimmed, and all of the milking data is automatically transferred. I can go back at any time I want and start to look for trends in the herd and say, “When did things start to change?”

One of the things I think is coming more and more online is in-line milk testing. We are doing a trial with a company called Soma Detect, which I think has a lot of potential, but it’s not there yet. They’re hoping to be able to do pregnancy testing as well as somatic cell counts and ketosis testing right from every cow, every milking with an in-line test. It’s still in an experimental stage, but that would be a huge time-saver and a huge amount of really quite valuable data that would be driven from that.

What’s the most worthwhile investment in time or energy you’ve made that has resulted in you being a better dairyman?

LOEWITH: We have a lined paper book in the office. We call it the Good Book. Any changes we make on the farm, any changes in protocols, any changes in ration, any changes in staff, absolutely anything that happens on the farm, we just write in that book. It is not “This cow aborted” or “This cow had mastitis,” but “We changed chemical washes in the tank,” “We changed teat dips,” “Instead of milking four cows at a time, we changed it to milking eight cows at a time” or “We increased the vacuum level in the parlour,” “Changed inflations” or “We changed the groups into a different orientation.” Any time there is anything that changes on the farm, we write it in that book.

The reason we do that is because about twice a year, we have a meeting with all of our key consultants. My father, my uncle, myself, we have two key herdspeople on the farm, as well as our vet and our nutritionist, we get together for a meeting to discuss, not how things are going right now, but how have we performed in the last six months or the last year and where are our opportunities.

We can graph any changes that have happened – our changes in every metabolic disorder, our change in milk production, our change in how the parlour is functioning. If there’s any signs where things started to get better or started to get worse, I can draw on that graph what changes happened at that time [as recorded in the Good Book]. So if we see that mastitis cases started to go up on May 1, I can look back in that lined book and say, “What happened around the week of May 1 that might have contributed to it?”

I’ve found through experience that you always think you’ll be able to remember when these changes occurred, but you never can. If you don’t write it down in some sort of form, you can never remember all the changes that occurred because there’s thousands of them.

What is a tool or a process that you wouldn’t want me to take away?

LOEWITH: We have rumination collars on all the dry cows and the fresh cows. I was against it at the beginning because we already have milk recording, so we can see if the cow is falling in milk. We were already doing a relatively intensive ketosis testing program where, every fresh cow, we do a blood test four times in the first 20 days. Surely, we were doing a pretty good job of seeing whether a cow is thriving or whether she’s starting to crash in that fresh period.

What I found with the rumination collars is: Not only is it picking up some animals that maybe we would have missed, even with all those other systems that we had in place; the big advantage is [that] once we’ve identified a compromised cow and we’ve treated that compromised cow, the rumination collar tells us whether that treatment has worked.

With the rumination collar, even if she still looks tough, if the treatment has been successful within 12 hours, I would expect that rumination to start going up. If a cow continues to fall on that rumination after the treatment, then we revisit that animal and say, “OK, our treatment protocol is not working.” Within 12 to 18 hours, you know whether that treatment program has worked or not, and I really think it saved a lot of animals’ lives.

If I were to give you $5,000 right now, what would you spend it on for your dairy?

LOEWITH: I would use it as a down payment to get $50,000. No, honestly, right today if I had $5,000 to spend, I would try to think of something I could do for all the staff because the last three months have been really tough. Everybody’s pulling their weight and doing a really good job taking the social distancing very, very seriously – but it’s been a little tough. Everybody’s just a little anxious, a little on edge. These are certainly unusual times, and everybody’s feeling it in their own way.

What’s one piece  of technology you’d like to have on your farm someday?

LOEWITH: There is a company called Cainthus out of Ireland that’s working on animal identification using facial recognition software. If you could have cameras throughout your entire barn and can identify the cows by their markings and by their eartags with those cameras, then you could identify boss cows and timid cows, and how many minutes they are spending eating. I could get data saying how many minutes per day they spend perching in the stalls. After I add bedding to the stalls, how many lunge attempts on average per cow do they make before they can successfully stand up? There’s so much data on animal behaviour we really don’t have a good way of measuring right now that I think could be extremely valuable.

What’s one decision you need to make in the next month?

LOEWITH: In the last year, we had some cryptosporidium issues with our calves. Our herdswoman does a phenomenal job with these calves, but then she went on maternity leave, and things really did slip. In order to improve things and break that disease cycle, we started putting lime underneath the calf hutches. We also added Halocur, which is a preventative treatment, and we started adding colostrum powder to supplement the milk for the first 10 days.

The lime, the Halocur and the colostrum powder together probably adds about $200 a calf to my raising costs. They’re not treatments, which means you’re doing it to every single animal. It’s worked, but I’d like to start pulling these things off one at a time to see what I can get away without. Because I put all three in at the same time, I can’t tell which one worked and which ones are unnecessary. So I have to decide which one of those three am I going to start pulling off and see if I can continue to raise healthy animals.

Describe your most recent accomplishment on the dairy.

LOEWITH: The most recent accomplishment is: We finally brought our somatic cell down below 100,000. Probably for three to four years, we’ve had a somatic cell count at 200,000, 250,000 – even 275,000, and it’s been incredibly frustrating for us.

The cows were milking well. Out of 450 animals, we might have one or two at a time that would have a clinical case of mastitis we were treating, but we just couldn’t get that somatic cell count down.

Through a tremendous amount of work, it ended up being some changes in the parlour that we made – the changes in the phases of the pulsation, as well as changes in the liners – that brought that somatic cell down.

I have to give credit to my father on this: He’s always had the philosophy, and my uncle as well, and I’ve tried to adopt it, that the difference between a good manager and a bad manager isn’t that good managers don’t make mistakes. Good managers make just as many mistakes as bad managers.

The difference is that good managers never live with those mistakes. Sometimes it literally takes three years of making changes, trying new things, getting different advisers, and every time you’ve got to give it a month or two to see if the results come through. If they’re not right, there’s no living with it. You just say, “OK, this still hasn’t solved the problem; we’re going to continue to make changes and do our best until we get it to where we know it should be.” end mark

Walt Cooley
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