It is not just the ration – non-dietary factors affecting milk production
I often get calls from frustrated farmers, nutritionists and veterinarians wondering why a herd of cows is not milking as well as the diet indicates they should be milking. Most of the time the problem is not related to forage quality and ration formulation. Most nutritionists have the skills and tools to develop diets that support high milk production. We are learning that achieving high production is more than just feeding a well-balanced diet with high-quality forage. The interaction of feeding, resting and minimizing stress has a big influence on cow performance.
Alex Bach (IRTA, Spain) conducted a unique experiment several years ago where 47 farms in Spain with similar genetics were fed the same diets. Rations were mixed at a central feed center and delivered to all the farms once daily. These farms averaged 65 pounds of milk per cow per day, with a range of 45 to 74 pounds. Even though this production is much lower than our U.S. average, this research showed that 56% of the variation in milk yield between farms was due to factors not related to the diet. There have been other research studies that have shown similar results.
Below are some non-nutritional factors that are important in achieving high production.
Age at first calving
Bach’s research showed that herds with an earlier age at first calving had higher milk production. Minnesota DHI records show the same trends with higher producing herds having a lower average age at first freshening. This may be because these herds focus on growing heifers faster allowing them to calve at a younger age with adequate size to achieve high milk production.
Feed bunk management
Not surprisingly, herds that pushed up feed more often had higher milk production (64 vs 55 pounds per cow). Fresh feed delivery is one of the biggest drivers of getting cows to eat. Because most of the feeding (and sorting) activity takes place shortly after feeding, it is recommended that feed be pushed up more often during the first couple hours after feed delivery and less frequently after that. Other research showed that feeding twice per day compared to once per day increased milk production and resulted in less sorting and improved feed efficiency. If feeding once daily, it is important to have diets that are difficult for cows to sort and keep feed pushed up. As summer approaches, it is also important to monitor feed condition at the bunk. If feed begins to heat, steps should be taken (additives or feed more often) so feed stays palatable for 24 hours.
Bunk space per cow also affects dry matter intake and milk production. This is more important when co-mingling first lactation cows with older cows. Research shows that in mixed pens, the dry matter intake of first lactation cows decreases when bunk space is less than 20 inches.
Cows fed to a slick bunk had lower milk production (64 vs 61 pounds per cow) than farms with some feed refusals. Rick Grant (Miner Institute, NY) showed that when feed bunks were left empty overnight (6 hours), cows produced 7.9 pounds less milk than cows that had feed available 24 hours per day. A good goal is to try and achieve 2 to 3% feed refusals.
Providing adequate stalls is important to maximize milk production.
Freestall density and maintenance
Cows on farms that overcrowded stalls produced less milk. At one stall per cow or more, there was no improvement in milk production. Herds with better stall maintenance also had higher milk production. Herds with higher numbers of stalls per cow also have lower overall cull rates. Cow need to spend about 12 hours per day resting for maximum milk production. Research estimates that about 2 pounds of milk are lost for every 1 hour of reduced resting time. The take-home message is that cows require both adequate quantity and quality of stalls to maximize milk production.
These were all mixed heifer and cow herds, so results might be different if cows and heifers were housed separately. Limited research shows that stall stocking densities above 115% might reduce production and cow health.
In the next few months, milk prices are likely to be at or below breakeven for many farmers. If cows are not performing as expected, it is important to examine all non-nutritional factors that might be holding back milk production. Fortunately, many of these do not require a lot of extra expense. Meet with your team of advisors and consultants to examine areas for improvement. Invite another farmer that you respect to visit your farm and provide an honest assessment of factors affecting production. Slight changes in the non-nutritional factors affecting production can have a big impact on production and profitability.