Whether you are a serious dairy farmer, or you own just a few cows for milk and dairy products for your own household, you will want to get as high a yield of milk as possible from your cows.
There are so many factors to consider when it comes to dairy farming. So many aspects of animal husbandry are overlooked, and they can cause a severe discrepancy between the animal’s consumption and production of milk.
I am going to take you through all the most important factors that influence dairy cow’s production of milk.
Hopefully, by detailing all of these aspects and providing scientifically proven facts, you will be able to identify where you are falling short in your strategy for higher milk yield and you will be able to correct these bad habits and bad practices.
Table of Contents
To understand all the basic terminology used in this article I have provided a list of all the important terms and what they mean.
- Peak milk: This is the point where the cow reaches the highest milk
production. This normally occurs four to ten weeks after calving.
- Dry period: The dry period refers to a period of 40 – 60 days during which
the cow should not be milked before calving. This is divided into
two groups: far-off (60 – 21 days before calving); and close-up (21
days before calving).
- BCS: Body condition scores (BCS) are an indirect estimate of
energy balance. These scores are based on the cow’s loin
and rump and rate from 1 – 5, one being very thin, three
being average, and five being excessively fat.
- Dry matter intake: This refers to remaining material after removal of all moisture.
- Forages: These are the main ingredients in the feed that provide roughage
- Feeding sequence: Feed needs to be provided in a specific order to boost digestion,
health, and quality of milk.
- Heat stress: Heat stress develops when temperatures are too high. Symptoms
of heat stress include shallow breathing, rapid breathing, and
sweating. Heat stress causes a decrease in milk production.
- Stray voltage: Stray voltage is anything more than one volt passed through
onto the cow’s teats. These shocks cause a decline in milk
Factors That Affect Milk Production
As your cows calve and are then milked their milk production will rise and then decline with the passage of time. Cow’s typically lactate for 290 to 310 days. Milk production is dependent on a great number of variables.
To increase your milk yield you will need to carefully monitor and institute procedures to use all these factors to your advantage for better quality and quantity of milk.
The following are the most important factors that could reduce your milk productivity:
|Conditions on the farm||Climate|
|Age of cow||Size of cow|
|Number of cows in the herd||Inadequate rest|
|Inadequate stall surface||Breed|
|Feeding before calving||Feeding after calving|
|Body condition||Stage of lactation|
|Number of milking times per day||Exercise|
|The transition back into the milking herd||Early, mid, and late lactation|
|Change of forage feed||Disease|
|Reproductive issues||Health issues|
This is a lot to think about, and I am sure it can feel quite overwhelming when you are starting out as a dairy farmer, but if you manage these factors effectively, and you constantly monitor each cow, you will find that managing these factors can become pretty easy, even a routine.
You just need to work out a good filing system, with files for each cow that cover all of the above factors, and that can be easily maintained. If you have a handle on all of these factors, then your milk production will be optimal.
I am going to cover all the really important aspects that affect milk production in this article.
I am going to give you a brief overview of what is important. Then I will cover in more detail aspects of the diet and feeding process – which I will cover in the order in which they should be given to the cows.
We have mentioned BCS (Body condition scores) already, so I will just remind you that you are looking for a BCS of under 4. Overweight cows can have difficulty calving, underweight cows can have difficulty producing the quantity you were hoping for.
If a cow is not fed enough, she will use her own body stores of fat to produce milk. This can lead to an underweight cow who is not able to produce milk.
You need to regularly inspect all grazing areas for any toxic plants and weeds that can make your cows ill. Toxicity in cows can be devastating to milk production.
You want to check for toxic weeds like bracken fern, acorns, and apples; silo gas; excessive non-protein nitrogen content in grain mixture; and mycotoxins, or anything that will reduce dry matter intake in forages or grains.
Chemical toxicity can also have an impact on milk production. The most common chemical found in this problem is fluoride (found in most processed drinking water).
Your cows’ diet should consist of fodder, protein, antioxidants, position food additives, and vitamins and minerals.
Avoid feeds containing mold, wild yeast, and poorly fermented feeds as these decrease the feed intake and digestibility.
Management of the amount, as well as the ingredients of the feed, should be carefully tracked as these too can have serious ramifications for the long-term milk production.
To get your cows to produce a higher quantity of milk, feed is one of the most important aspects to consider and manage. A well-balanced diet is essential if you wish to get the most milk possible from your cows.
The feed should consist of natural grazing elements, as well as added vitamins and minerals, that will prevent the cow from getting ill or becoming weak due to malnutrition and thereby allowing the cow to produce more milk through the entire cycle of lactation.
The nutritional needs of the cow will change before calving, during the first 48 hours after calving, and then again towards the end of the lactation cycle. As manager of your dairy, it is your duty to ensure that your cows are properly fed correct quantities of each of the food types and supplements needed for milk production.
Keep your cows in a fenced-in enclosure, with access to a bulk cattle feeder to ensure that they are taking in all the nutrition they need. Food should be made available to the cows for 20 hours per day. There is also a very important sequence to each component of the feed to follow when feeding. This aids in the overall digestion of the cow.
Cows kept in an enclosed area are easier to keep track of for health issues as well as nutrition-related issues. It is important to monitor what is in the enclosure with the cows to ensure that they do not consume anything toxic that will impact their health or their milk production.
Make all your feed count. If it does not have nutritional value, moo-ve on.
2. The Correct Feeding Sequence
The order in which feed is provided to the cows is important because correct sequencing can add to the digestive system’s efficiency, and optimize the nutritional intake which will result in more milk.
If you feed your cows forage and concentrates separately you should always feed the forages first in the morning followed by a portion of grain mix. This will increase intake and maintain milk fat percentage. The fiber in the forage will stimulate chewing and saliva production which buffers the rumen which aids grain digestion.
When you feed silages, you should mix these in with the forage sources like corn or grass silage before feeding.
Fermented rations can depress feed intake. To prevent this from happening, rations should always have fifty percent dry matter.
3. Ensure Sound Management Practices
Good management is not just some abstract concept. We all need to manage our lives every day to ensure we do not find ourselves overwhelmed by life’s daily struggles and chores.
As a dairy farmer or homesteader, you will have to control the types of feed, the availability of food, equipment used, staff, health, conditions, and comfort of your dairy cows as well as your human resources.
To truly succeed, you will need to maintain detailed records on every possible aspect from food to insemination and reproduction. This will help in monitoring which cows are good producers and which are past their prime.
The sooner you learn to manage your homestead or farm effectively and efficiently, the sooner you will begin to profit from your labors. Nothing can be overlooked.
It is essential that you keep track of all successes as well as all failures so that you can learn from both the good and the bad, and to develop better habits to ensure your dairy farm succeeds.
4. Dry Period Nutrition
Managing your cow’s dry period is crucial to the long-term quality and quantity of milk produced. This is a period before calving when a cow must not be milked. Ordinarily, during this phase farmers will seal the teats and follow their veterinarian’s recommended protocols.
This is a very important time as it can affect the health of both the cow and the calf, as well as the future production of milk. During this period, the cow will produce colostrum which stays in the milk in the udder for the newborn calf. Colostrum contains vital elements required by the calf if it has any hope of surviving and being healthy.
She should rest and eat well as her body prepares for birth and milk production. If the dry period is too short, the milk yield will be reduced, and both cow and calf will be vulnerable to infections and disease. Optimally the dry period should last 40 to 60 days.
While in the dry period, the cow is vulnerable to intra-mammary infections because of the changes happening in the mammary glands. This will need to be monitored and effectively managed.
An effective dry period will result in a greatly improved production of milk during lactation. It is therefore critically important, if you want to gain more milk per head per day, that you manage the dry period effectively, ensuring that the cows are not interfered with or milked during the dry period, whilst monitoring the teats and udder for any signs of infection.
5. How You Treat Your Cows
Our interaction with our cows is one of the most important factors that determine milk yield.
We are all human. We all make mistakes and learn from our mistakes. Staff on a dairy farm need to be very carefully trained and monitored to ensure that the cows are not under stress and that their daily intake and output can be clearly and accurately monitored and recorded for future reference.
Dairy cows are often very high-strung. For the most part, this is a good thing as high-strung cows tend to produce more milk. However, high strung cows can react to stress in a very negative way that will manifest itself in low milk yield or in extreme cases even stop the production of milk completely.
Something as simple as herding the cattle into the milking shed can cause the cows a lot of stress. The cows should rather be walked in slowly and calmly so that they do not become agitated, overly stressed, or apprehensive about the milking shed.
Cows should not be yelled at, slapped, or rushed – EVER!
6. Keep Cows Indoors
The temperature can have serious implications for milk production. Cows left in freezing snowy conditions can die from exposure to the cold. But cows hate the heat! Heat stress results in a massive reduction in milk output.
This is a huge factor throughout Africa, one of the hottest places on earth. Many farmers overcome these issues by keeping cows indoors, always in barns with air conditioning. Keeping the ground clean and the lack of natural grazing can be a nightmare, but cows are less stressed and produce well.
Cows are very inquisitive. They will often gather around a new object to watch the object to see what it is, or does. I love watching them do so, they are so nosey. Kept indoors, they miss out on all that interesting stuff but to increase production, indoor housing cannot be beaten.
Keeping cows indoors is a solution that many farmers are turning to as herds are easier to monitor, manage, and maintain.
Indoor farming of dairy cows may seem somewhat unconventional. However, indoor farming is actually ideally suited for dairy farming.
For one thing, it is easier to keep track of the cows to monitor their health and nutrition. Hygiene can be easily controlled by automatic drainage systems to remove urine and effluent.
The less the cows move around the higher the milk produced. Indoor farming therefore almost guarantees a higher yield of milk as the cows cannot move around too much.
Cows need to be kept calm and comfortable for them to produce milk. They need to lie down a lot. Keeping them indoors reduces the stress of heavy storms, predators, and general excitement.
Indoor farming also makes it easier to manage the climate that the cows are in to protect them from the cold in the winter and to keep them cool in the summer.
7. Inflammation Of The Udder Needs Prompt Action
There is a word that is sacred amongst livestock farmers of all types – HEALTH. Cattle can be disease magnets for everything from a tummy bug to Creutzfeldt-Jakob (mad cow) disease. The important thing to do, that critical point, is DO NOT PANIC! Most of the time, a sneeze is just a sneeze.
For dairy farming, the number one buzzkill that ends milk production is mastitis. This is a hardening of the breast/udder tissue often accompanied by or caused by infection. The tissue becomes swollen and painful, and the cow can experience extreme heat fluctuation. Just like humans, cows are vulnerable to mastitis or fever.
Subclinical milk fever is also a condition that occurs in the udder and can reduce or stop milk production. This is low blood calcium that can result in ketosis; higher somatic cell count; delayed uterine involution; metritis; depressed feed intake; and reduced milk yield.
Cows that have a history of milk fever, ketosis, or mastitis are likely to experience these issues again. So keep good records so the cows can be more closely monitored if they have a history, and be given early intervention before things get out of hand.
8. Provide More Space and Comfort
In South Africa (and other countries), there are dairy farms that go so far as to provide clean double bed mattresses for cows to lie down on in their stalls. Needless to say, these are the successful farmers.
A cow’s comfort has a very definite effect on her milk production.
Cows are very tranquil animals. They do not like excitement. Too much activity around them can induce stress, which will lead to low milk production. Ensure that cows are kept close to their milking area so that they do not have to walk far to go for milking.
Remember: every step taken requires energy, and every ounce of energy used is an ounce that could have gone into producing milk.
Cows lie down – a lot! This is what you want. You want them to feel safe and comfortable. Cows stand up and lie down twelve to fifteen times per day. They need to be able to do so without risk of injury or being trampled. When cows lie down, their blood flow is increased resulting in more milk being produced than when they are standing.
New moms need more room to lay down to lower their stress levels. They will want to remain close to their herd for the support the herd provides them with, so do not remove them entirely from the herd. Keep them within sight of their herd where they can hear each other to communicate.
Bedding is important. It is not a good idea to bed cows in stalls with concrete, cement, or slippery rock floors. Cows go lame easily on hard surfaces, and they can injure themselves trying to lie down or stand up.
Sand-bedded stalls are ideal. You should replace sand weekly, or more often than weekly if you can, to prevent the spread of parasites and to prevent diseases, and you should flatten bedding daily.
Overcrowding in stalls causes fatigue stress – a result of being forced to stand too much – which lowers milk production.
Overcrowding at the feed bunk can result in cows not eating sufficiently for milk production. This is important always, but it is especially important in early lactation.
If you choose indoor farming, each cow should still have her own stall with fresh bedding daily, lots to eat, and lots to drink.
It is important to have water available 24/7, and that sufficient feed bunks are available and are kept full.
Make sure that your cows have sufficient stall surface, that the stalls are kept clean and dry, that there is sufficient access to food and water, and that the cows have the space needed to stand up and lie down as they please.
9. Reduce Stress
It is crucial to reduce stress as much as possible. Factors that could add stress are heat, cold, inadequate accommodation, being able to see or hear their new calf once the calf has been removed, stall space, bedding, illness, diet, treatment, and contact with workers.
Everything on the list is dealt with in other sections of this article except the last one: contact with workers.
The human interaction with a cow can be the most stressful part of a cow’s day. We all see movies with cowboys herding cattle yelling “Come on cow! Come on!” and making silly yipping sounds. In South Africa, cow herders are told to “move these cows from here to there” and that is what they do – by any means.
If that’s how you handle your cows, you can say goodbye to your milk…
All your farmworkers should make a habit of talking and laughing softly amongst the cows. They should never yell at or around the cows. They should never smack the cows or pull tails. They should never crack whips or show aggression around the cows.
Keeping cows close to milking sheds reduces the distance to move the cows, they use less energy to walk to be milked, therefore they produce more, and they have less opportunity to develop a fear of humans.
At the farm I mentioned earlier with the actual bed mattresses for the cows, the cows have a good relationship with their handlers. To them, people = food and love. The cows at this dairy come to the milking stations on their own twice daily. They know when to line up, and that is what they do.
Keep things calm and kind. Cows do form bonds with their handlers, so they are easy to train.
10. While Controversial, Hormone Treatments Increase Milk Production
Farming has changed dramatically over the years, not without controversy. The use of hormones, steroids, and antibiotics in livestock, as well as on seeds and crops, means a bigger yield for farmers.
But these can be passed to consumers, therefore it is important to know exactly what you are doing and what you are using. It is this drip down effect that has many people up in arms against the use of hormones.
It is important that you check your area’s laws on this matter. Most places, globally, have laws that state the animal or products from the animal cannot be used for several days to several weeks after administering steroids, antibiotics, hormones, or vaccines. Milk is tested for these and you can lose everything if you are not abiding by local laws.
Hormones can be used in two ways on dairy farms…
First off, by adding hormones to the cow’s schedule of medications and vaccinations you can increase the production of milk in your dairy cows.
The hormone used is called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). It is injected every second week into the cows, and effectively it helps the udder to absorb more nutrients from the bloodstream so that the cow can make more milk.
On average, cows that have been injected with hormones can produce 11lbs (5 kg) more milk daily than cows who have not been administered hormones. It is important to note that using hormones will mean you will have to feed the cow more.
Her body will require more energy. She will need about 1.1lbs (half a kilogram) more feed for every 2.2lbs of milk she produces. You will also need to monitor the cow’s health (which you should already be doing) to ensure she is healthy and content.
The second way that hormones can be used may sound like a mean trick to play on the poor cow, but there are definitely advantages in doing things this way.
For any mother to produce milk, she must have had a baby. Right? Wrong!
It is possible, using hormone therapy, to fool the body into thinking it needs to produce milk. This is a more popular trend for human adoptive parents today. The adoptive mom forms a tighter bond, and her adoptive baby gets all the healthy nutrients from breast milk and bonds with the adoptive mom.
There is another aspect of dairy farming that consumers do not normally spend too much time thinking about. What happens to the calves? Some are kept as heifers for breeding in the future to become dairy cows themselves, but the sad truth is that most wind up culled or sold for processed meat.
So why not take a more humane approach by tricking the cow’s bodies into producing milk without having to worry about what to do with calves? Going the hormones route also spares the cows being used to breed in a perpetual cycle until they are eventually culled.
By introducing hormones, it is possible to induce milk production without the cost of insemination, feed, medical care of a pregnant mom and calf, and disposing of the calf or raising it.
Dairy cows that are treated with hormones produce more milk for longer, and the milk is the same quality as in a cow that has calved.
11. Feeding In Winter
The weight of a cow is very important going into winter. It is better to bulk up a bit before winter as access to food and water does not protect them from the cold. They will need a reserve of fat to keep them warm – even indoors.
If you live in an area where you get snow, your cows will have to be kept indoors. They will struggle to maintain a good body weight if they are outdoors, which means the energy that would have gone into milk production will instead go into keeping their bodies warm in order to survive.
You need to feed more so that they have sufficient energy to keep themselves warm and still provide milk.
12. An Energy Rich Cow Is A Productive Cow
Amino acids are essential for making milk protein. If there is insufficient glucose in the blood the cow will use amino acids to make glucose.
This means that there will be fewer amino acids available for the cow to use in producing milk. It is therefore essential that you provide extra glucose to the cow, especially during early lactation.
Extra glucose can be supplied either through adding fatty grain or by feeding fat. It is not recommended that you feed extra grain because this can cause rumen acidosis. Adding sugar to the diet of the cow also stimulates the growth of rumen bacteria.
By adding 0.55 to 1.10lbs (1/4 to 1/2 kg) of supplemental sugar to their diet you can generate a protein response that will result in increased milk production. Adding molasses is a great way to bring sugar into your animal’s diet. It also increases the food intake as – just like trying to feed a toddler – it makes the food taste better.
It is always better to rather feed extra fat because this supplies the cow with the extra glucose and it has the added benefit of improving fertility in the dairy cow.
13. Limited Grain In Corn Silage Reduces Milk Production
Too little grain, and the quality of the grain, in corn silage, can lead to a decrease in the amount of energy coming from these forages. It is important to stay focused on the quality of your feed and to make adjustments when necessary.
I recommend that you work with a nutritionist or a vet in this regard as they may be more in tune with what is happening in the corn silage in your area that you may not be aware of.
The grain in the corn silage is essential for increasing and for maintaining energy levels. This means that the grain has a direct impact on the quality and quantity of milk produced.
Some Final Thoughts
The world is huge, with populations of billions of people and animals, microorganisms, bacteria, fungus, species, and subspecies. We live on different continents. Our dietary uptake is not consistent across the globe. We do not all have the same access to food or to clean water. We all have unique health issues, and we all face unique challenges every day.
Dairy farming is no different to human daily life in that way. We have different breeds of dairy cows. Our cows have unique health issues. Our cows are afforded different levels of accommodation. Our cows have access to different quality water and feed, and each area has its own laws, problems, and issues to deal with.
As dairy farmers, we should have a flexible approach to farming to accommodate the different breeds and the natural environment, and what each environment brings in terms of challenges as well as benefits.
If we are able to monitor our cows’ intake, their comfort, their access to food and water, and their health issues, we will be able to improve the yield of milk per cow.
Never be afraid to ask for help. Turning to the Internet can be a very helpful tool, however, the internet does not carry information on every breed, as it is placed in each unique environment in different countries, and at different elevations on earth.
To get more effective information on farming in your area, It is always best to approach local farmers. We can learn so much from each other to develop better ways to manage our herds. We can work together to discuss solutions to issues that they have had in the past which we are currently dealing with.
I hope that this article has been very insightful for you and that you have learned from the article about best practices as well as how to implement better solutions to ensure your cows are healthy, happy, and productive.
Di-Anne Devenish Seebregts was raised in an environment where daily life consisted of hiking, environmental conservation, growing fruit and vegetables, and raising poultry for meat and eggs.
She combined her passion for the writing word with her love of the pride that comes with not relying on others. She raised three children (who are now adults) to value the environment, and understand the value of being self-sufficient.