Maximizing milk

Program takes deep dive into uncovering production opportunities


MADISON, Wis. — Helping herds maximize their milk production through evaluation of cow comfort indicators, facility design and management measures is the focus of the C.O.W.S. Program from Novus International Inc.

“The purpose of our program is to help unlock bottlenecks, identify opportunities for cow comfort and provide tips to help improve the production of your herd,” said Karen Luchterhand, Ph.D., C.O.W.S. Program lead.

Luchterhand shared data collected from on-farm assessments during a Knowledge Nook presentation titled “What are our top producing herds doing?” Oct. 4 at World Dairy Expo in Madison.

“We’ve done over 1,600 assessments in the U.S. influencing over 1.6 million cows,” Luchterhand said.

Cow-based measures assessed include lying time, hock and knee injuries, and lameness. Management and facility measures look at things like stall design, time budget, stocking density, bedding quality and quantity, and water space.

“What is the cow telling us?” Luchterhand said. “What can we learn from her environment?”

Luchterhand shared results from 476 assessments done on dairy farms in the Midwest and Northeast analyzing mature, high-production Holsteins housed in freestall barns.

She said milking frequency dictated milk output significantly with three-times-a-day milking at a 9-pound advantage over twice-a-day milking. Cows milked twice daily averaged 91.2 pounds of milk whereas cows milked three times a day produced 100.8 pounds. Cows milked four times a day averaged 106.3 pounds.

Ventilation options had a notable effect on milk yield. Cows averaged the most milk in cross-ventilated barns at 104 pounds. In tunnel-ventilated barns, they averaged 92 pounds, and in naturally ventilated buildings, cows averaged 88 pounds.

Fresh cow management was another area examined. There was a significant difference in milk yield when fresh cows were located in a separate pen compared to fresh cows sharing a pen with sick cows. On farms where separate pens were provided, cows averaged 96.7 pounds of milk versus 92.3 pounds for fresh cows housed with sick cows. Fresh cows housed in a lactating pen averaged 94.3 pounds.

Feed barrier design in high-lactating pens favored headlocks over a post and rail system. Cows in a headlock system averaged 96.2 pounds of milk while cows in a post and rail system averaged 92.7 pounds.

“We’re not talking about lockup times as obviously that would be detrimental if you’re excessively locking up cows,” Luchterhand said. “Headlocks are protective. If you have a boss cow, it takes a lot more work for her to pick out cows in a headlock versus a post and rail where she can just bulldoze down the row.”

Luchterhand said, in higher stocking densities, there may be a benefit of using headlocks, but she and her team are still going through the data to confirm that thought.

Luchterhand also shared data from a case study done on a commercial dairy farm in Texas, examining the effects of lock-up time in early-lactation animals.

“In this study, we wanted to know if we were making our healthy cows sick,” Luchterhand said. 

There were 200 cows per treatment — either a two-hour lockup for the first 21 days in milk or zero hours of lockup. Cows that did not get locked up had greater milk yield, lower somatic cell count, 20% fewer cases of mastitis, a lower incidence of lameness, and a first estrus of 10 days and were pregnant 45 days sooner.

In a commercial dairy study done in Minnesota in 2020, Luchterhand compared stocking density to milk yield and gross feed efficiency. In pens with a 100% stocking density, cows averaged 73.6 pounds of milk and 1.62% feed efficiency. In pens with 130% stocking density, cows averaged 72.7 pounds, and feed efficiency was the same as in pens with 100% density. 

The bigger difference was seen at a stocking density of 153% which had more than 900 cows in one pen averaging 70.4 pounds and 1.59% feed efficiency.

“There was a very small difference in milk yield between pens with 100% and 130% stocking density and no difference in feed efficiency,” Luchterhand said. “There is a threshold for every farm, and for this dairy, it looks like it’s 130%.”

When Luchterhand and her team conduct stall cleanliness evaluations on farms, they rank up to 20 stalls on a scale of 1 to 3 where 1 equals dry, 2 equals wet and 3 equals manure/soil. 

“For each unit of increase, we find that you expect to lose 5 pounds of milk,” Luchterhand said. 

Luchterhand also shared data on what the C.O.W.S. Program’s top 10 component herds look like. The top herd came from Michigan and had a combined fat and protein of 8.13%. Cows at this farm are deep bedded with reclaimed sand in a barn featuring tunnel ventilation and fans for pen cooling. Cows are fed twice a day and milked three times a day and spend 3.6 hours daily away from their pen that has a stocking density of 144%. 

The No. 2 herd is located in Utah and had a combined fat and protein of 8.10%. Cows at this farm are deep bedded with dried manure solids in a barn featuring natural ventilation and sprinklers. Cows are fed twice a day and milked three times per day and spend 3.8 hours daily away from their pen that has a stocking density of 127%.

“All top 10 herds are either deep- or shallow-bedded, primarily with sand,” Luchterhand said. “Only one mattress herd made it into the top 13.”

The top 10 herds had a combined fat and protein range from 7.28% to 8.13%. Six farms use natural ventilation, three use tunnel ventilation and one is cross-ventilated. Six of the farms use sprinklers, and all farms milk three times per day. Time away from the pen ranged from 2.9 to 4.85 hours per day, and stocking density ranged from 98% to 144%. Most of the farms feed two to three times a day. 

In closing, Luchterhand said feed availability and feed delivery are two items farmers should review on their dairy.

“Consider more frequent pushups,” she said. “Also, what are lockup times? I’ve been to dairies where I’ve seen the high pen locked up for five hours. Nobody was in the pen, and cows were done eating. We need to avoid doing this.”


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