Ensuring the future milk yields of dairy cows

Dairy calves

When starting a new dairy farm, some management actions must be undertaken correctly from the start ensuring the future milk yields of dairy cows. Although cows are fed and milked (which is harvesting of milk) daily, some management decisions could affect the production performance of cows positively or negatively for a long time afterwards. Reducing the amount of concentrates or feeding poor quality roughage would affect the milk yield of cows within a few days, actions such which as sires are selected, the way heifers are reared and when cows become pregnant, has a long term effect on the milk yield of cows. It is therefore important that the correct decisions are taken from day one. For example: the daughters of sires selected today only come into milk three years later, while, only after another year, is it possible to determine the production potential of these daughters. To see the lifetime performance of the daughters of sires another 3-4 years are required. In many dairy herds the culling rate among cows is high, i.e. only about 10% of first lactation cows eventually cows reach a 5th or 6th lactation. The way heifers are reared, affects their age at first calving and milk yield potential. Heifers being reared poorly often calve down late (after 24 months of age). Poor heifer survival will also have a negative effect on replacement rate and herd growth. Some of these aspects are discussed in this paper.

Get cows pregnant

Dairy farming is a continuous process of cows calving down and getting them pregnant again while being in milk. The next calving down date should be less than 13 months from the present calving date. Extending the calving interval, i.e. the number of days between subsequent calving down dates, reduces the milk yield of the herd while also slowing down the herd’s genetic progress.

Natural service (using a bull) or artificial insemination (AI) can be used to get cows pregnant. For small herds it is costly to keep a bull while management problems may occur. Using a bull of poor genetic merit limits the herd’s genetic progress. Inseminating cows is a relatively simple technique although proper training is required beforehand. In commercial dairy herds AI is a standard practice. When doing AI genetic progress can be quicker because a world-wide range of bulls are available. The cost of buying semen is often less than keeping a bull.

However, in AI, the fertility of dairy cows depends on the ability of people to detect cows in heat and to deposit semen at the right time and place for conception to take place.
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  • Research Associate, Faculty of Animal Sciences, University of Stellenbosch

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