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5 strategies to decrease milk production

Brandon Treichler for Progressive Dairy Published on 14 April 2020

As domestic and global food supply chains attempt to sort themselves out during the COVID-19 pandemic, many dairies are being asked to cut back on milk production to mitigate the dumping of milk.

Each dairy will have decisions to make on how they manage to throttle back production, based on their own situations and management philosophies prior to COVID-19’s arrival. Each of the available options comes with potential considerations and drawbacks.

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1. Alter milking frequency

If the dairy milks 3 times per day (3X), or even 4X for some pens, one of the easiest strategies is to simply drop back to twice-a-day milking (2X). Research data and practical field experience shows that 3X-milking increases yields by roughly 10%, so cutting back to 2X-milking can cut back production quickly.

Considerations: Going from 3X-milking to 2X-milking can cause high production cows and pens to leak in stall beds. It may impact time needed to scrape alleyways in barns, resulting in an increased volume of manure in pens, which can impact cow cleanliness and milk quality. This will change schedules for employees, and it may either result in fewer paid hours or furloughing employees.

Advantages: The biggest advantage of this approach is while it offers an immediate lowering of production, it also is possible to immediately go back to higher production if the market changes. Switching to 2X-milking has the advantage of cutting overhead of parlor consumables such as dips and cleaners and would also extend the life and maintenance interval of milking-equipment replacement parts. It may also allow a dairy to cut its labor expenses.

2. Alter rations

Before making any potential ration changes, you absolutely need to consult with your nutritionist. With that disclaimer out of the way, for herds with available high-quality forage sources, it may be possible to alter diets to raise the forage content and perhaps cut back on more expensive feed additives and supplements. Of course, the formulated diet still must meet the cows’ nutritional requirements for maintenance, growth and reproduction, but increased forage may be a way to lower some of the energy density of diets and may impact feed intakes as well.

Considerations: As discussed, this option is completely predicated on having enough forage base available of high enough quality to meet the cows’ nutritional needs while backing down some of the energy density of the diets.

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Advantages: Increasing forage in diets helps to lower the feed cost, which is the major expense category on a dairy, and can help decrease the need for purchased feeds in place of forage presumably already in inventory and paid for. Higher-forage diets can be very beneficial for rumen health, which can help drive components in milk but also may have positive longer term benefits on cow health, longevity and reproduction. Keeping cows in the herd longer typically improves milk per cow over time and also lowers replacement costs.

3. Extend dry periods

Dairies may choose to dry off cows early as a means of quickly lowering production without shrinking the herd size.

Considerations: Drying off a cow is a semi-permanent solution that cannot be reversed until the cow calves. Additionally, dry periods of over 75 days have been shown to have negative impacts on future milk quality, milk production in the next lactation and likelihood of culling or death. By overextending dry periods, it may be more difficult to keep condition off of cows, and there are also breed and age considerations. Jersey or Jersey-cross cattle and older cows are at a higher risk of postpartum metabolic diseases even with normal dry-period lengths, and this risk would be increased with extended dry periods. We also have the issue of housing for these additional dry animals, because overstocking current dry-cow housing would add to the negative effects described above. Of course, there are welfare considerations as well. Abrupt cessation of milking for cows that have not yet tapered their own production causes significant levels of udder pain and discomfort for a period of a few days. Lastly, though dry-cow diets are cheaper, this strategy involves carrying a large population of animals on feed that are not producing any income to offset their feed costs.

Advantages: Early dry off is a solution that is available to all herds regardless of factors such as current times per day milking or available feed. Drying off animals immediately removes their production from the tank, and it also allows a dairy to maintain its current herd size (on paper), which may be important for financial partners.

4. Increase culling

Removing any animals from the herd that were already slated for culling, do-not-breed cows or those with other issues that make them less desirable to maintain, milk and breed, may offer other benefits beyond immediately lowering milk production.

Considerations: While culling animals for a portion of their previous value is not desirable, at this time increased culling may not even be a viable option. Many cattle auctions have been canceled either due to concerns with public gatherings or due to decreased volumes of feeder cattle being marketed. In addition, several slaughter plants in the U.S. have either completely shuttered or cut back on volume due to workforce and supply challenges. With that said, there may be an opportunity to delay culling and simply feed out cows for 60 days.

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While there is no guarantee the market for culls will look more favorable in 60 days, dairies may elect to hope for an improved market and also try to market a heavier cow. Delaying may also allow for a chance to transform the carcass from a boner (ground-beef use, typically) to what is termed a breaker (low-end steaks for buffets, etc.) with a good strategy for the feeding period. Also, due to the time of year, some dairies may have available pasture to turn some of these cull cows out on grass. Lastly, it goes without saying that culling is by far the most permanent solution.

Advantages: Culling offers immediate results, and making culling decisions on cows sooner is better for cow welfare by typically culling a cow while it is in better condition. Increased culling also offers the opportunity to improve the overall health and viability of the herd, now and in the future, by removing animals that are less desirable for whatever reason from both the production and reproduction strings.

5. Alternate uses for milk

Having additional milk available can also be a blessing in disguise. Biologically, a cow makes milk to feed her calf, and we can definitely use this “opportunity” to return to nature and improve our calf-raising ability. There is an opportunity to feed calves 9 liters (2 gallons) or more of whole milk daily, and there is also potential value in extending the milk-feeding period by delaying weaning out to 90 days or more in some cases.

Considerations: Calves generally do very well on whole milk, but if your dairy is not equipped to pasteurize the milk, there are herd health considerations that should be addressed with your veterinarian before going down this road. Although calves can be raised in group pens very effectively, especially when they are being fed enough milk to limit cross-suckling behaviors and where ventilation is good, there does need to be thought given to having suitable facilities for these animals. Finally, calf care of additional calves requires additional labor. While dairies moving away from 3X-milking may have additional pools of labor, many other dairies may not have access to this.

Advantages: There is excellent research data that proves feeding additional milk to calves can have significant future benefits in milk production. There is also recent research that indicates increased volumes of milk pay back simply by decreasing diseases such as pneumonia during the milk-feeding period. The best overall feed efficiency in the entire life cycle is achieved with milk-fed calves, and increased milk feeding can allow the heifer to reach the targeted breeding size of 55% of future adult body weight faster.

This gets them into the milking string sooner and reduces heifer raising costs. This could also be a potential solution for low bull-calf prices, or lack of bull-calf markets. If dairies can contract their calves or have an outlet for feeders, raising them out on low-cost milk could allow you to harvest lost milk revenue by turning it into pounds of calf to be marketed in three to four months. Of course, feeding additional milk to calves also is a much more positive public relations story than dumped milk or supply-control programs.

To say we are in the midst of unprecedented upheaval in the dairy industry is more than a bit of an understatement. Outside the box thinking can offer some means of limited financial mitigation and also be an opportunity to invest in the future of our herds and address animal-care concerns as well.  end mark

Treichler is a past member of Progressive Dairy’s editorial advisory board.

PHOTO: Getty Images.

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