Keys to Unlocking Milk Income Potential


When margins are tight, it’s tempting to take short cuts. But dairy cows have long memories, and shortcuts taken today can have impacts that might not be seen for months or even into the next lactation, says Virginia Isler, a dairy specialist with Pennsylvania State University.

“With the dairy cow, there is always a ripple effect,” she says. “It’s not just about milk production; other aspects of the biological unit are impacted and can result in bigger problems down the road.”

Shortcuts in nutrition might lead to compromised reproduction, extending days open and delaying breeding. That can lead to far longer lactations, increased body condition, and problems reaching into the next calving.

“To optimize production, the transition period, early lactation and breeding age heifers are keys to unlocking added potential,” she says.

Transition period. “The transition period (pre- and post-calving) sets the stage of how successful the cow will be in her lactation,” says Isler. “Maintaining proper body condition and dry matter intakes are critical elements to cows freshening with minimal problems.”

Problems can occur when transition cows are too thin or too over conditioned. The ideal body condition score at calving is 3.25 on a 5-point scale. “Both feeding management and nutrition are critical to ensure intakes and nutrients are maintained during this stressful period,” she says.

Pre-fresh cows should have at least 30” of bunk space. Ration particle size is also important, especially when straw or hay is fed at high inclusion rates. “If sorting occurs, then all animals are not receiving the ration formulated by the nutritionist,” says Isler.

Early lactation. In early lactation, milk components should exceed 5 ½ pounds of combined milk fat and protein per cow day. To achieve, peak milk should exceed 95 lb/cow/day, and minimum production on 2X milking should be 75 lb. For 3X, it should be greater than 85 lb/cow/day.

“Cow comfort, feeding management and the proper balance of energy and protein are important to meeting the many nutrient demands during this time,” she says.

To keep days in milk in the ideal range of 175 to 180 days, days to first service should be less than 80 days. Average days open to conception should be around 120 days, she says. The ideal body condition score during early lactation is 2.75 to 3.0.

Breeding age heifers. This group of replacements is key to future herd performance. Well-grown, healthy heifers are a mark of a good calf program. To calve at 22 to 24 months, breeding age heifers must be the ideal weight and height to conceive. Like transition cows, extremes in body condition in heifers 13 to 15 months of age can impact conception and performance.

For heifers to peak at 80 pounds of milk when they calve, they need both the stature and weight to maintain performance during their first lactation. “These animals are still growing while producing [high levels of milk], and if they are short and fat or tall and skinny, animal performance will be challenged,” says Isler.

Tags: Management Tips