Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

20 by 20’: Getting 20 additional pounds of milk by 2020

Mark Armfelt Published on 09 August 2013

“Doc, when you come to visit next week, I want to talk about what I can do to get my cows to produce 20 more pounds of milk per day by the year 2020,” said a dairyman. On the day the producer called, his cows averaged 104 pounds of milk in the tank.

This producer’s cows are doing very well; why is he looking for the next 20 pounds of milk? He wants to continue to make a profit; he wants to have money to go on vacation, spend time with his family or reinvest in his operation.



Milking cows is a business; he knows he cannot stand still. When I graduated from veterinary school in 1977, the average dairy cow produced 40 pounds of milk. If your cows averaged 40 pounds of milk today, you would have a difficult time in the dairy business.

In a six-year analysis of dairy farm profitability, Kevin Dhuyvetter from Kansas State states, “High-profit operations (top 33 percent) had average returns of $1,094 per cow more than the low-profit operations (bottom 33 percent). … (The most) important factor was the high-profit group produced significantly more milk per cow (4,307 pounds per cow) than the low-profit group.”

Profit is a function of income over expenses. The easiest way to increase income on a dairy is to sell more milk.

If the more milk comes from the same number of cows, you have diluted your fixed costs and increased your profit. That is why this producer wants 20 more pounds of milk by 2020.

Here are a few of the ways a producer might gain 20 more pounds of milk by 2020.


From 1985 to 2009, annual milk production per cow increased 198 pounds from genetic improvement. If the herd improves by 198 pounds each year for the next seven years, that would be a total genetic gain of 1,386 pounds.

If you spread that gain out over a 305-day lactation, that is a gain of 4.5 pounds of milk per day. If you use unproven bulls, your genetic gain might be zero; if you use technologies like embryo transfer, genetic testing and choose semen from excellent bulls, your gain will likely be more than 4.5 pounds per day.


What opportunity exists to tighten the range of milk production in each part of the lactation?

Figure 1 is a graph of milk production by days in milk.

Click here or on image at right to open it at full size in a new window.


Each dot you see represents a cow: Red dots are heifers, green dots represent a second-lactation animal, and blue dots are third-lactation animals.

When you look at Figure 1, you can see there are animals making a lot of milk in early lactation, and some animals are not making a lot of milk.

This herd is averaging 77 pounds in the tank. The 195 cows above 75 pounds daily milk are averaging 94 pounds of milk per day.

Those below 75 pounds are averaging 63 pounds of milk. What is holding those relatively fresh cows to 63 pounds of milk? Do they have a lot of transition problems? Are they overcrowded? Are heifers and cows separated? Is bunk space adequate?

The difference between the average cow above 75 pounds and the average cow below 75 pounds is 31 pounds.

If you could identify and fix the bottleneck on this dairy, and subsequently improve the average production of those early lactation cows currently below 75 pounds by 15 pounds, half of the 31 pounds difference, milk per cow in the tank would go up an average of 3 pounds on all cows.

Why are some later-lactation cows not performing? Perhaps because they got a poor start and never took off well; perhaps there are overcrowding issues for those cows.

Some cows may be having long lactations because they did not get bred on time. The difference between the group of cows above 75 pounds and the group of cows below 75 pounds is 32 pounds.

If you could identify and fix the bottleneck for the late-lactation cows, and you could improve the average production of those cows currently below 75 pounds by 16 pounds, half of the 32 pounds difference, milk per cow in the tank would go up an average of 5 pounds on all cows.

What opportunities exist on your dairy to be more aggressive in the area of culling? It is likely some of those cows in the lower right-hand quadrant in Figure 1 should be replaced with higher-producing cows.

When the difference between the value of a cull cow and her replacement is small, it may be very profitable to be more aggressive in your culling. Replacing some of those low-producing animals will likely raise milk per cow in the tank by a pound or two.

Forage quality impacts dry matter intake, milk production and animal health. High-quality forage means less grain will be fed, and milk production will go up, resulting in increased income over feed cost.

Areas of opportunity include corn hybrid selection, timely harvesting, appropriate particle length, adequate processing, silo packing and covering, appropriate feedout rates and managing the bunker face. Improvements in managing forage quality can account for an additional 5 to 10 pounds of milk per cow per day in the bulk tank.

Whether you call it human resources, labor management or a big pain, there may be a huge opportunity to improve milk production and profitability by creating an environment on your dairy where employees feel like they are a valuable part of the team.

Research has proven that some dairies have a competitive advantage because of their employee management skills.

Motivated and dedicated employees are more likely to pay attention to details when mixing feed, follow the proper milking routine, administer synchronization shots appropriately and less likely to abuse your animals.

The dairyman I referred to in the first paragraph has increased his rolling herd average from 25,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds in two years. He attributes half of the improvement to improved employee management. Engaged employees offer the potential to pick up 6 to 8 pounds of milk per cow per day in the tank.

In the lactating cow, somatotropin makes nutrients available to go to the udder to make milk. In general, assuming nutrients are available, the more somatotropin the cow makes, the more milk she makes.

Genetically superior cows make a lot of their own somatotropin. Somatotropin-supplemented cows may produce 10 more pounds of milk.

On average, a herd which uses manufactured somatotropin according to the label would be supplementing 75 percent of the lactating cows. If 75 percent of your cows produce 10 more pounds of milk, your tank average will go up by 7.5 pounds.

These opportunities are some of the ways you can work toward that additional 20 pounds by 2020. You cannot stand still. PD

Armfelt has a DVM degree from Ohio State University and is board certified in dairy practice.


Mark Armfelt