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Animal and Herd Productivity in Dairy Cattle


R. Page Dinsmore

, DVM, DABVP, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Colorado State University

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2021 | Modified Oct 2022

The productivity of an individual cow is the sum of the value of the milk she produces, the value of her offspring, and her individual market value when she leaves the herd. Many factors influence individual cow productivity, which is also based on longevity and the proportion of the cow’s lifetime spent producing milk. Nonproductive periods include the period from birth until first parturition and dry periods before subsequent calvings. Heifers must be managed to reach appropriate breeding size by 13–15 months of age to maximize lifetime production.

Milk yield is related to stage of lactation. Milk yield increases rapidly after calving, reaches a plateau 40–60 days after calving, and then declines at a rate of 5%–10%/month. The rate of decline is lower in first-parity animals than in older cows. Good reproductive management ensures that the largest proportion of a cow’s total lifetime production is spent during early high-producing stages of lactation rather than late, lower-producing periods. Milk yield increases with age and parity until about the sixth lactation; these cows may produce up to 25% more milk volume than first lactation cows. Health disorders or other management problems that reduce longevity have a negative impact on productivity.

Nutritional Management

In most dairy herds, nutritional management is the most important determinant of herd productivity. The relationship between nutrition and productivity begins at birth. The feeding system must deliver the necessary nutrients to each cow at the correct stage of growth and lactation to maintain optimal productivity.

Research has documented the importance of the ration fed to cows in the transition during the 2–3 weeks before calving. Dry cows are fed a diet relatively low in carbohydrates and protein and high in fiber, reflecting the low nutrient demands of the nonlactating cow. The transition period ration must allow the rumen to adapt to the lower-forage, more nutrient-dense lactating ration. Further, the stresses associated with moving animals to the transition pen and of calving itself tend to reduce feed consumption at this critical time. Reduced feed intake in the transition period is associated with excessive weight loss; reduced peak milk production; and an increased incidence of postpartum diseases such as metritis, retained placenta, ketosis, displaced abomasum, and fatty liver. Research has documented the benefits of monitoring postpartum cattle for excessive energy mobilization by measuring blood levels of beta-hydroxybutyric acid, one of the ketone bodies.

Rations for lactating cows must strike a balance between providing high levels of energy and protein to support high milk production and maintaining optimal rumen health and motility. Subacute ruminal acidosis Subacute Ruminal Acidosis in Cattle and Sheep Subacute ruminal acidosis is characterized by intermittent, self-correcting periods of low ruminal pH. Affected cows do not show clinical signs when ruminal pH is depressed. However, sequelae... read more (SARA) is a common condition resulting from excessive fermentable carbohydrates, inadequate fiber of adequate length, or a combination of the two. Health effects of SARA include digestive upsets and diarrhea, reduced feed consumption and milk production, reduced butterfat content of milk, ulceration of rumen epithelium, liver abscessation, and a series of foot problems related to subclinical laminitis Overview of Lameness in Cattle Lameness is a painful condition that affects the locomotor system of cattle and has a detrimental effect on health, welfare, and productivity. It is caused mainly by hoof lesions; it can also... read more .

The choice of a feeding system is associated with herd size and production level. Three general types of feeding systems are used currently by dairy farmers: total mixed ration (TMR), component feeding, and management-intensive grazing. Each of these systems, when implemented correctly, can deliver adequate nutrients for a highly productive dairy herd. Each system has its own inherent challenges in achieving optimal productivity.

The use of TMR feeding systems has increased as more herds have adopted free-stall or dry-lot housing. TMR diets have several advantages: cows consume the desired proportion of forages, risk of digestive upset is reduced, feed efficiency is increased, byproduct feeds may be used, accuracy of diet formulation is higher, and labor needs are reduced.

However, the performance of herds using TMR diets can be adversely affected by errors in ration formulation and feed delivery. An oft-quoted statement illustrates the challenges of TMR feeding. There are 3 rations for a dairy herd: the ration on paper as formulated by the nutritionist, the ration delivered to the cows, and the ration the cows actually consume.

Some common formulation or delivery errors include:

  • inadequate or nonexistent forage testing

  • variation in forage dry matter

  • variation in dry-matter intakes

  • overmixing of diets that reduces effective fiber length

  • errors or imprecision in the mixing of the ration

  • overfeeding or underfeeding energy to late-lactation cattle

When TMR diets are fed, feeding mistakes are often spread across the entire group or herd. Health management programs of herds that receive TMR diets should include systems to monitor the adequacy of the ration formulation and delivery.

Component-fed herds receive grain and forage separately. Advocates of component feeding emphasize the ability to meet the production and metabolic needs of individual cows throughout their production cycle. The primary disadvantage of component feeding systems is that the cow receives concentrates separate from forages, enabling ingestion of these concentrates in a single feeding, leading to rumen acidosis and indigestion.

Management-intensive grazing systems can be used to meet the needs of modern dairy cows. In some regions of the world (eg, New Zealand and Australia), pasture-based systems are the predominant method of feeding dairy cattle. In these truly pastoral systems, nutrition frequently limits productivity because of significant annual variation in growing conditions. However, the economic model in such a system emphasizes low costs of production rather than maximal productivity. In other areas, such as Britain and the northeastern USA, rotational grazing is used to provide for the forage requirements of lactating cattle during the spring and summer months, and supplemental concentrates and corn silage are fed to achieve high milk production. In both situations, seasonal calving is practiced to match rainy or spring season pasture conditions with the energy needs of early lactation cows. Attention to reproductive management is therefore critical for herds in which there is an attempt to breed all cows within a defined period.

Production management programs for herds using management-intensive grazing systems must include programs to control bloat, hypomagnesemia, and copper and selenium deficiency. Pastured cattle may walk considerable distances to harvest forages. Therefore, a system to monitor and minimize lameness Lameness in Cattle must be included in the health delivery system.

Reproductive Management

Artificial insemination Artificial Insemination Cattle breeding programs may use AI or may rely on natural service. Modern AI methods were developed in the 1930s and 1940s; the practice is used widely in dairy cattle but much less in beef... read more Artificial Insemination (AI) using semen from genetically superior sires is the most important factor leading to increased productivity in the dairy industry, accounting for at least 150 kg increased annual production since its inception. Even today, the genetic potential for milk production greatly exceeds the actual milk yield achieved on most farms. Reproductive disorders are the most common and costly reasons for premature culling of dairy cows.

In conventional dairy herds in which calving occurs throughout the year, suboptimal reproductive management Breeding Programs in Cattle Reproduction Cattle breeding programs may use AI or may rely on natural service. Modern AI methods were developed in the 1930s and 1940s; the practice is used widely in dairy cattle but much less in beef... read more Breeding Programs in Cattle Reproduction leads to the failure of cows to conceive in a timely fashion, or at all. Cows remaining nonpregnant (open) reduce productivity in the following ways:

  • Open cows spend more time in late lactation, with lower milk production

  • Cows taking longer to conceive may dry off sooner, leading to longer dry periods

  • Risk of culling increases greatly in cows remaining open >300 days after calving

  • Fewer replacement heifers are available

  • Higher labor and treatment costs are associated with prolonged efforts to synchronize and breed open cows

Successful AI requires that cows be inseminated during estrus in a narrow range of optimal fertility, and that the semen be thawed properly, transported quickly to the cow, and deposited in the appropriate area of the reproductive tract.

The most important factor affecting the success of an AI program is the detection of estrus: US data indicate that < 40% of estrus periods were detected in lactating dairy cattle. Efforts to improve heat detection using estrus synchronization and artificial detection aids have been largely unsuccessful and are hampered by the reduced duration and intensity of estrus exhibited by modern US Holsteins, and by the greater difficulty in observing estrus on larger farms.

Because estrus detection rates are so low, some dairy managers have returned to extensive use of natural service sires to ensure that cows conceive promptly. In these herds, breeding soundness examinations Breeding Soundness Examination of Bulls The breeding soundness of dairy bulls are evaluated in specialized semen freezing centers, because most modern dairy breeding is done exclusively by artificial insemination rather than natural... read more Breeding Soundness Examination of Bulls and bull management Reproductive Management of Bulls The electroejaculation technique is being used here for semen collection to examine the breeding soundness of a bull. The laboratory setup for a computer-assisted semen analysis (CASA) system... read more Reproductive Management of Bulls programs should be part of routine management practices to ensure continued herd productivity. However, the problems associated with natural service include reduced genetic improvement of offspring; costs associated with purchase, raising, and feeding bulls; damage to facilities; and danger to people.

Researchers in Wisconsin and Florida have developed hormonal synchronization protocols that allow timed insemination to be performed with acceptable conception rates. These programs have been widely adopted and have enabled herds to dramatically increase the number of pregnant cows throughout defined time periods. Many of the injections and the inseminations can be scheduled on a weekly basis, leading to more efficient use of labor. These timed insemination programs have led to a resurgence in the use of AI and are significantly increasing the genetic milk production potential of the dairy cow.

The widespread adoption of aggressive, timed insemination programs has emphasized the importance of early and accurate pregnancy diagnosis. Cattle found to be nonpregnant (open) at 30–35 days after breeding can be resynchronized immediately to minimize the time they remain open. Accuracy is essential, because a pregnant cow mistakenly called open will be given prostaglandin F2alpha as part of the synchronization program and will abort Abortion in Cattle Also see Management of Reproduction: Cattle. Given the low diagnostic success rate, the high cost of laboratory work, and the low profit margin in both the beef and dairy industries, veterinarians... read more Abortion in Cattle the embryo. Veterinarians are increasingly adopting transrectal ultrasonography for routine pregnancy diagnosis Breeding Programs for Heifer Replacements and Cows For efficient herd economics and mitigation of the environmental impact, cows should deliver their first calves early. Puberty is a function of breed, age, and weight. Beef heifers that are... read more Breeding Programs for Heifer Replacements and Cows , because pregnancy diagnosis at 32 days using ultrasound is simple, reliable, and safe.

Another option for early pregnancy diagnosis in cattle is the use of blood tests to identify the presence of pregnancy-associated glycoproteins. These tests are inexpensive and are highly specific and sensitive. In herds whose veterinarians cannot visit frequently enough, herd managers can collect blood samples from cows bred 30 days or more and ship them to laboratories performing the tests. Because there is an expected 5%–10% embryonic loss between 32 and 60 days after conception, early pregnancy detection by any method should be followed by manual confirmation after day 60 of gestation.

Replacement Management

Herd productivity can be profoundly affected by the success of the replacement program. The cost of raising heifers is a significant proportion of the overall cost of production; a replacement animal does not begin to earn a profit until midway through her second lactation. Two recent developments have dramatically increased the number and genetic potential of female dairy replacements: use of gender-selected semen as well as genomic testing of AI sires and replacement females.

Sex selection of bovine semen was validated at Colorado State University in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the technology has been licensed to virtually all of the major bovine semen companies. Use of female-selected semen increases the likelihood of a female calf to 85%–90%, dramatically increasing the number of female replacements available on a dairy farm. Because of the time required to sort sperm in the initial iterations of the technology, a straw of sex-selected semen typically contained fewer sperm, and hence the fertility of a dose of semen was reduced. As a result, it has been recommended that use of sex-selected semen be limited to virgin replacement heifers whose fertility is naturally higher than that of older, multiparous cows. Recent developments have greatly increased the speed and accuracy of sorting, and fertility of the current sex-selected semen straws is approaching that of conventional semen.

The genome sequence of a Hereford cow was first published in 2009, and regions of the genome corresponding to various beneficial traits, such as milk production and overall health and wellness, have been identified. Tests for these traits are now readily available and of reasonable cost, and male and female cattle can be tested at any time after birth. Semen companies can use the tests to identify potential sires carrying beneficial traits, saving years of time and expense in the process of selecting AI sires. Dairy herds can test their adult cows to identify high genetic-merit dams of replacement heifers. Female calves can be tested for future milk production potential, and high genetic-merit individuals can be identified. Given the surplus of replacement heifers on many farms because of the use of female sex-selected semen, heifers with lower genetic merit can be sold for beef.

A wide range of mortality rates (5%–25%) is reported for replacement animals. The highest morbidity and mortality rates on dairy farms generally are seen before weaning. The most significant causes of preweaning death are infectious diseases of the digestive and respiratory systems. These disorders can be controlled by well-designed health management procedures that define the care and housing of the dam during the periparturient period, the calving process, feeding adequate quantities of high-quality colostrum, and the application of proper preventive measures (including sound nutritional programs) for newborn calves.

Delayed age at first calving reduces dairy productivity by increasing the need for replacement animals and increasing the costs of raising the replacements because of longer feeding periods. Heifers should be 22–24 months old at first calving, which means they should conceive when 13–15 months old. Adequate nutrition is important to ensure that heifers are fertile and cycling at this stage and that continued growth occurs so that heifers are large enough at calving to limit dystocia Management of Dystocia in Cattle Dystocia management must begin with proper heifer development. Fetopelvic disproportion is a major contributor to dystocia. Calf birth weight, the size of the pelvic area of the dam, and the... read more and maximize mammary development and lactation.

Herd Size, Composition, and Culling

There is a well-demonstrated relationship between productivity, profitability, and herd size. One reason for this is the greater willingness for larger operations to adopt production-enhancing technologies. Larger operations can take advantage of economies of scale when purchasing feed and other consumables. Government policies can also substantially influence herd size: countries with supply management systems limit the amount of milk a farm can sell, in an effort to reduce the oversupply of milk and support the price per volume of milk sold. The amount and productivity of pasture can influence the size of herds that use grazing to supply some or all of the nutrient needs of the herd. In these herds, productivity is determined by balancing the ability of the pasture to produce nutrients against the ability of the cows to produce milk. The size of both grazing and confinement herds are increasingly affected by competing demands for land.

The proportion of the herd producing milk versus the nonproductive stock (dry cows, calves, heifers, and bulls) has an effect on total herd profitability. Herd composition is the result of a number of interrelated management decisions, such as culling policy, rate of reproductive success, rate of disease, replacement management, and longterm goals regarding herd size. For instance, a herd may be faced with the need to cull older cattle because of chronic disease problems or because of a low pregnancy rate. If plenty of replacement heifers are available, the milking herd demographics may shift toward younger animals to approach 50% first-lactation cattle. Although these younger animals are genetically superior to the older animals, they will not achieve their production potential until the third or fourth lactation, and the overall herd production will decline.

With the advent of timed insemination programs, older cows are being re-bred and becoming pregnant more successfully. As a result, not as many replacement heifers will be needed, and the herd demographics will shift to favor older more productive cows. In such a situation, herd managers may choose to perform genomic testing of the female youngstock and sell animals with lower genetic merit.

In countries such as the USA, where herd production is not limited, longterm plans regarding expansion often influence herd composition. In some growing or start-up herds, nulliparous pregnant cattle are purchased to reduce the risk of purchasing animals with infectious diseases such as contagious mastitis or bovine viral diarrhea. These herds often consist of a high proportion of first-lactation animals, and herd production will be lower.

Environmental Conditions

Even with optimal housing situations, herd productivity can be affected by environmental conditions. High-producing cows have higher dry-matter intake, generate more internal heat, and are less tolerant of high ambient temperature. Weather conditions that combine high ambient temperature and high humidity without periods of cooling generally depress dry-matter intake and reduce milk yield. The increased concentration of dairy farming in regions that experience considerable periods of high temperatures (eg, southwestern USA) has resulted in more seasonal variation in milk output.

Farmers have adopted a variety of systems to combat heat stress. New facilities are constructed with large, open sides and ends (often >4.3 m high) to take advantage of natural ventilation and use fans and sprinkler systems to keep cows comfortable. Older, enclosed facilities can be retrofitted with tunnel ventilation to provide adequate air movement.

Dairy cattle are remarkably cold tolerant, as long as they can remain dry and are sheltered from wind and precipitation. However, significant die-offs have occurred in regions of the USA that normally experience mild winters. In these areas, housing may consist of open dirt corrals and a central milking parlor. Freak blizzards have led to losses of hundreds of dairy cattle in such dry-lot dairies in New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas. Cattle in open/dry-lot dairies should always be provided shelter from wind as well as shade from summer sun.

Drying Off and Dry Cow Management

Risk factors for most postpartum diseases of dairy cows are present during the dry period, with clinical signs of disease becoming evident after calving. Such prepartum risk factors include insufficient or excessive energy intake, inadequate regulation of calcium intake and absorption, muddy corral conditions, and overcrowding, which can lead to diseases such as hypocalcemia (milk fever), hypomagnesemia, udder edema, ketosis, displaced abomasum, lameness, and mastitis Mastitis in Cattle With few exceptions, mastitis occurs when microbes enter the teat via the teat canal. Almost any microbe can opportunistically invade the teat canal and cause mastitis. However, most infections... read more Mastitis in Cattle . Dairy health management programs must focus on preventive practices such as vaccination, hoof care, corral maintenance, and nutritional monitoring during this period and must monitor the herd for occurrence of these diseases.

The length of the dry period influences milk yield in the subsequent lactation. The recommended dry period is 6–8 weeks. Dry periods of < 40 days reduce milk yield in the following lactation. Dry periods that are too long may lead to excessive weight gain and reduced production efficiency. Both short and long dry periods are most common when breeding dates are uncertain because of either bull breeding or inaccurate (or missing) reproductive records.

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