As farmers continue to adjust milk production to reduce the amount of milk having to be dumped and to meet supply management programs implemented across the country, culling comes to mind. However, Dr. Mike Lormore, a leading dairy expert with Zoetis, says there are several things you can do to reduce milk production without culling. In fact, he says using the following three tactics, a farm can remove almost 14% of their milk production without culling cows.
1. Reduce milking frequency. According to Lormore, moving from 3x to 2x milking will reduce production by 7-8 lb. per cow per day.
“If we go from 3x to 2x, we can actually maintain a higher number of cows at relatively good levels of production, so we don't have to get rid of a lot of cows,” he says. “At some point, we will want more cows and no one knows when that will happen.”
An important consideration for this strategy is to start with the fresh cows up to 21 DIM and the later lactation cows (>150 DIM), says Mike Van Amburgh from Cornell.
“Changing the cows in peak production will cause stress and previous experiences suggest if they are near peak or just post-peak, intra-mammary pressure will be quite high causing significant discomfort in the cows,” he says. “We have observed herds that made this change in the cows at peak milk yield and they were uncomfortable, do not lay down, leak copious amounts of milk and there are large increases in SCC as the gland is put under such stress.
Lormore points out one benefit of reduced milking frequency is reduced stress on labor and additionally flexibility in staffing needs. Still, VanAmburgh says decreasing milking frequency will have the longest lag in terms of returning to normal production.
2. Dry cows off earlier. One option to reduce your farm’s total milk production is to dry off cows early, maybe 3 or even 4 months from calving. How much milk production is reduced will depend on the number of cows dried off and their current level of production. However, doing this has its own risks, not the least of which is calving in cows that added body condition during a prolonged dry period, says Mike Hutjens, a University of Illinois Extension dairy nutritionist.
“Weight gain could be a real risk factor,” he says. “I recommend placing these long days dry cows on a low energy diet to avoid weight gain. Hopefully, we can keep cows [that are dried off early] at a body condition score of 3.0 (2.75 to 3.25).”
When you dry off lactating cows early, use similar protocols to normal dry off, says Hutjens. He notes that some farms with very high production successfully dry off cows still giving 80 lb. of milk. To dry these cows off, you would likely want to move them to a separate group and change the diet to all forage.
Don’t leave cows dry for too long, Lormore advises.
“There's also been conversations in the industry about increasing dry periods to three or four months. We don't see that as a good opportunity,” he says. “In fact, there's a lot of good evidence that cows have a dry period of significantly longer than about 70 days are at significantly elevated risk for metabolic disease as they get closer to freshening time again.”
3. Feed calves longer. One way to get rid of excess milk is to feed it to calves. Switching to fluid milk from a milk replacer will absorb some production, but have you considered leaving calves on milk longer? Lormore says milking fresh cows four or five days longer and feeding that milk to calves can have several benefits. Not only is that early milk loaded with growth factors, but there’s a lot of research supporting the idea of enhanced performance from eating that milk, he says.
“We're looking at opportunities to feed calves whole milk. People are at 48 day weaning now. We'd love to get them to 60 [days] and realistically we think that there's opportunities that people have space and operational capacity to feed calves on whole milk for up to 90 days,” he says. “And that would take two and a half to three gallons of milk out of the system every single day.”
According to Loremore, feeding calves whole milk for up to 90 days provides an opportunity to remove 3 to 4% of the total milk supply.
These strategies by the numbers:
In 2019, 9.35 mm milking and dry cows produced 218.3 B lb. of milk. That’s an average of 64 lb./cow/day for all cows. New Goal: Get down 7 lb./cow/day.
Reduce milking frequency from 3x to 2x: (-7) lb./c/d * 75% of the cows in the US = -5.25 lb./c/d
Increase Days Dry by two weeks: reduce days milking by 3.3% and total milk flow by 2.5% = -1.6 lb./c/d
Increase Whole Milk Feeding to Calves: 15,000 heifer calves born per day @ feeding rate of 2.5 G/d for 60 d to 3 G/d for 90 days removes 6.45 to 9.68 B lb./yr. @3% = -1.9 lb./c/d
So, we can get down [5.25+1.6+1.9] = 8.75 lb./c/d or 13.7% without culling any cows