In a recent article by a popular show cattle magazine, a well-known brood cow passed away at the age of 20. This is certainly not typical of modern commercial dairies, but many farmers have heard of or owned cows reaching their later teens and early twenties. With the ever-increasing impact of welfare science, is it right to have older cows (greater than five years of age) represent a larger proportion of our herd? How do we deal with these old girls as they enter the herd in subsequent lactations? What would consumers prefer to see or know?
What does it take to have older cows? Why do you want older cows around your farm? Milk production plateaus at about lactation six or seven, but what is the benefit of older, productive, strong, and sturdy cows? Older cows make more milk ─ end of story. Every farmer knows that he or she does not make a profit on a cow until the second or third lactation. The cost of raising replacements increases every year, sometimes costing over $2000 per heifer. More older cows means we need fewer replacements around which means lower heifer raising costs. Older cows also have less risk of dystocia, so it’s possible to have more live calves depending on the current rates of stillbirth and caesarian sections. Perhaps we should evaluate our records and see where we stand on stillbirth rates, non-voluntary culling (mastitis, metritis, lameness, poor conception), and voluntary culling rates (poor genetics). Could we benefit? Where is the breaking point between profitable, mixed-aged herds, and decreased replacements with building larger barns and bigger stalls? Honestly, we do not have sound numbers yet, but you might figure that out for your farm.
Older cows require more space (bigger stalls) and more feed. Maybe big, old cows over 1800 pounds will not fit in your parlor. Do we have to renovate or build a special pen for the older cows? Are the stalls wide enough? Do we need stalls that are more than 54” wide? How can you afford to build a barn for bigger animals? What about disease? Older cows will have greater exposure to pathogens due to age alone. How can you manage your farm so that disease is of lower risk? Management is your friend and your foe. Each producer will find a balance between vaccinations, barn cleaning, pen movements, and disease control to maximize the herd’s potential.
If we do have more older cows, why are they staying around? Do we like the genetics of the cow line or family? Does she milk well? Does she breed back? Is she docile enough, but not overly stubborn? A 2009 University of Florida Beef Research Report found that docile beef cows were more likely to have better conception rates. Maybe this translates to dairy cows, too. Maybe our old cow is a certain girl we just can’t get rid of--even though she’s had mastitis five times, metritis four times, frostbitten ears, three teats, and a bum foot.