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Steps to take to reduce milk output

9 April 2020

Options to Reduce Milk Output

COVID-19 has significantly impacted on dairy markets with a huge drop in demand for milk and dairy products in the food service industry, despite an increase in demand for fresh milk and dairy products in the retail sector.  Some processors heavily rely on the food service industry much more than the retail sector and will be seriously struggling for cash flow on the back of losing a significant number of customers almost overnight, along with delayed or cancelled payments for orders already shipped.  Some farmers and processors are now dumping milk and volume reductions are now being asked for by some processors.


It is worth having a conversation with your milk buyer to discuss their requirement for milk volumes going forward.  Accurate forward forecasting is more important than ever for your milk buyer to plan for servicing existing customer orders and divert milk to where demand is greatest.  For farmers that need to look at reducing milk volumes there are several areas to consider:

3x to 2x milking

This is expected to drop milk volumes in the region of 10%.  Beware that there could be a rise in cell counts and potentially mastitis rates as well with a longer interval between milkings, so more opportunity for infection.  Attention to detail in parlour routine and teat preparation becomes even more important to maintain udder health.  Ensure adequate bedding and perhaps more frequent bedding and use a powdered disinfectant, if not already.  Also consider cow cleanliness and how clean the passageways are.

In the long-term, there may be benefits of a 2x system in terms of labour, with staff having more time in the middle of the day for other tasks, and better staff morale and mental health. With lower yields, cows may show stronger expression of heats and for longer, thereby improving heat detection and potentially conception rates.

Reducing concentrates

While this might seem like the most obvious route to go down, reducing concentrate feed is a very risky strategy.  Will cows lower their peak yield accordingly or are they programmed to produce milk at the expense of body condition, even if concentrates are reduced?  For high yielding Holsteins, the risk is that energy in milk output will still greatly exceed energy consumed, leading to an increase in body condition loss, metabolic diseases and fertility issues, with veterinary intervention required.  The effect on fertility will also be felt in the long-term through lower milk output in 12 months’ time.

Alternatively, this could be the time to look at removing expensive feed additives from the diet, such as yeast or protected fats.  Only consider removing supplements if it will not have a detrimental effect on health (e.g. rumen buffer being fed to counteract the effect of wet, acidic silage or a low forage to concentrate ratio).

Reducing yield in a robotic system

Trying to reduce yield in a robot system is very difficult and the key is not to compromise early lactation, high yielding cows, especially those approaching peak yield.  For mid to late lactation cows is it possible to restrict the number of milkings by increasing the time in between eligible milkings?  Any alterations should be made on an individual cow basis, taking yield, stage of lactation and body condition score into consideration.  Feed management of the trough could be altered by increasing energy density, so that later lactation cows are less driven to visit the robot.  For example, this could be achieved by feeding less than 7 litres under the herd average in the trough.

Drying off cows early

Are there cows in the herd that could be dried off early?  Those overconditioned (BCS 3.5 or more) and over say 350 days in milk could be dried off early to reduce volumes and also save on concentrate feeds.  It is important not to radically alter body condition throughout the dry period if possible.  If some weight loss is required, this should be done in the early part of the dry period, with the aim of achieving the target condition score of 2.5 to 3 at four to six weeks before calving.  For fat cows that are dried off early, a “slimming diet” may be required.  Take advice from your nutritionist.  Any cows producing less than say 15 litres (depending on breed and level of milk production of the herd) should be considered as they are unlikely to be covering their keeping cost.  If cows are dried off early and put out to pasture, use a teat sealant and fly control measures to prevent summer mastitis.

Culling opportunities

Are there less efficient cows in the herd that can be culled?  Repeat breeders, lame cows, chronically high SCC cows and those with repeat cases of mastitis (consider culling those with three repeats in the same quarter or more than five cases across all quarters in the same lactation).  You would need to check that the abattoir you send cull cows to is still open for business.  Beware that this strategy may not necessarily reduce overall milk output if the remaining cows in the herd benefit from extra feed and lying space.

Feeding whole milk to calves

Depending on your milk contract, you could consider feeding whole milk from the bulk tank to calves, thus slightly reducing the volume for collection.  However, this will not significantly reduce volume but could have huge implications for calf health.  Whole milk can vary in quality depending on the stage of lactation of the cow and this is one of the risks with feeding whole milk – inconsistent quality leading to digestive upsets.  Also, whole milk should not be fed if there is Johnes disease present in the herd or other infectious diseases such as Mycoplasma bovis or Salmonella dublin.  The risk for disease transfer to calves is high.  While pasteurisation can reduce the risk, it will not eliminate it.  Waste (antibiotic) milk should be dumped as stated in Red Tractor standards.

If milk output needs to be reduced on request by your milk buyer, take advice from your vet, consultant and/or nutritionist regarding the best strategy for your herd and management system.

Lorna MacPherson for the Farm Advisory Service


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