Reduced milking frequency – This might be the season to try it, even if you haven’t used it before.
It’s pretty tight for feed on many farms, with the wet soils followed by the cold nights meaning that growth rates during August have been lower than budgeted and expected.
Supplement levels going into calving were pretty good across the region, but the last two months have seen much of this get eaten up. Despite heavy supplement use, average pasture covers, and cow condition are both disappointing for this time of the year, even on those farms feeding more than 50% of the diet as a supplement.
Minimise impact on mating performance
With mating just around the corner, what can you do to minimise the impact of the current feed deficit on mating performance and, therefore, next season’s production and success? Remember, for many herds cow condition was not at target at calving, so impact on mating is a double whammy – with cow condition at calving and BCS loss between calving and mating being additive.
Strategic use of reduced milking frequency may just be your ‘get out of jail free card’
Over the past 10-15 years, we have seen a huge increase in the use of reduced milking frequency for a raft of reasons, and most of those farmers would use it again – some irrespective of the conditions, some if the right conditions arose again.
Once-a-day milking (OAD), 3-in-2 (milking 3 times in 2 days) or 10-in-7 (e.g., milking OAD on Sat, Sun, Tues, Thurs) can all be effectively implemented for at-risk groups, whole mobs or whole herds either for a short (< 3 weeks) or a longer period. While there will be negative impacts on production, there will also be positive effects on pasture management, staff workload, cow health and cow metabolic state.
Consider production loss moving from milking twice a day, to a reduced milking frequency
There is a lot of good research, both from within New Zealand and abroad, demonstrating the impact of OAD milking on milk production. While the details vary across the studies, reduced production of approximately 10-30% over the once-a-day milking period can be expected (dependent on variables such as duration of OAD, breed, age of cow, feed available, etc.). DairyNZ has researched the use of OAD milking in early lactation in a severe feed deficit suggesting that cow energy status is improved with OAD milking, although you may not see it in absolute BCS that quickly.
The data on the other milking frequencies for variable periods of time in early lactation are less well researched, with most of the information reported from farmers who are using these strategies on farm. However, the somatic cell count (SCC) is usually lower in 3-in-2 and 10-in-7 compared with OAD milking. There will be slight variations in production but the convenience for staff and pasture management means that many herds like this simple approach.
Which cows will benefit the most from reduced milking frequencies?
At this time of year identifying a group of at-risk cows (i.e., those at risk of poor reproductive performance) and using reduced milking frequency to help improve their energy balance status is one option. This at-risk group could include first and second calvers; very old cows; cows that calved at less than BCS 4.5; cows that had animal health issues at calving; cows with endometritis (“dirty cows”); non-cyclers; lame cows; late calvers; cows already in BCS 4 or less.
Alternatively, if the above at-risk list becomes more than half the herd, perhaps addressing the whole herd for a short period (< 3 weeks) may lead to a better overall outcome.
What else should be considered before reducing my milking frequency?
Every farm will have slightly different management factors to consider. I’m often asked about in-shed feeding and the risk of animals missing out on meal and minerals if they only come to the shed once a day. Should these animals be kept in the twice-a-day mob but not milked when they get to the shed? We don’t have a study that answers that question but from first principles the walk to the shed in the afternoon on some farms may outweigh the benefit of OAD milking. For example, on a hilly farm with a 1.5km walk to the shed, a cow uses 15ME to get to and from the afternoon milking; this only balances out if they eat an extra 1.5kg meal in the afternoon milking! If they drop 20% production on OAD that is about 30ME still saved each day – so there is still a net gain from the OAD. That said, animals that are kept in the TAD herd while being milked OAD do take longer to switch to OAD milking i.e., the afternoon stimulus is there to produce milk, so potentially there is an increased mastitis risk with this option (milk drip during milking etc).
As an advisor and vet, I don’t think about reduced milking frequency as ‘either …or…’, I think of it being another management option that can be implemented in addition to other on farm strategies to get the best results for your cows, people, and farm sustainability. Just because you are a high input farm, have a feed pad or have meal feeders doesn’t mean reduced milking frequency can’t have a place in the right circumstances for some cows on your farm. The key is ensuring it is executed well – choosing the right cows, the right time and the right feeding levels to get the best benefit from it.
Feedback from farmers who have tried reduced milking frequencies as a management tool
“I highly recommend OAD milking as a tool to get cows in calf. It is a system that I have been using for 10+ years, 1 month pre mating on my 2 and 3 year olds, and the results speak for themselves with the mob always achieving better repro than the rest of the herd and in the last 3 seasons this group has been above 80% 6-week in-calf rate.”
“We would never go back to milking heifers TAD. It’s so good to see how much bigger and stronger they are as they grow as well.”
Other resources you may find helpful: