Producing Less Milk: A Not Often Considered Concept By Producers

Over the past two months dairy producers have seen clouds on the horizon, but nobody could have predicted the storm we are now facing. COVID-19 changed everything.

Increased cow numbers and production per cow signaled lower milk prices for the future, but the disruption caused by COVID-19 bottle-necked the pipeline and sent prices over the cliff. Processors saw buyers walk away from contracts, storage fill, and employees fall sick or not show up due to fears of catching the virus. They finally had to slow down the flow of raw milk coming into their plants. Letters went out to producers calling for production reductions, from seven to 20 percent. Now, producers are left asking how to reduce pounds they ship without destroying their “factories.”

Producer options are limited. Early dry offs, expedited culling, feeding milk to calves and cows and the least palatable of the options, dumping milk; and, all this is happening while some grocers are limiting customers to a few gallons of milk and shelves are often empty.

The fastest way to reduce milk production would be to step up cull rates. Producers cull every month, but markets and harvest facilities are having their COVID-19 issues. Unfortunately, many processors will be unable to handle the flow. Several major meatpacking facilities in the United States and Canada are idled, while others are running below capacity. Preliminary USDA data show that last week’s slaughter volumes for cattle from feedlots fell 16.6 percent below prior-year levels. Daily volumes suggest that slaughter of fed cattle will drop an additional 10.5 percent from last week. Dairy producers choose when to send cows to slaughter and packers will prioritize finished cattle from feedlots over dairy cull cows.

Early dry off can be an immediate option, but caution is required. Besides the struggle of taking productive cows to zero, once they are dry, special care must happen to control their dry matter intake and prevent excessive weight gains during the extended dry period.

Feeding calves and cows milk can utilize some milk, but there are restrictions to the amount they can be fed.

For milking cow rations, Matt Akins from UW-Madison has some limitations to use:

  • Disease transfer – Unpasteurized milk is a concern for spreading Johne’s disease, Mycoplasma, bovine leukosis (BLV), Staph aureus and other diseases. If possible, pasteurization is encouraged to reduce disease transfer. Pasteurizer capacity is likely limited, so prioritize pasteurized milk to young calves/heifers. Pasteurization of milk using batch pasteurization is 145°F for 30 minutes with agitation.
  • Moisture content – High water content (85 to 88 percent water) limits the amount fed in a total mixed rations (TMR). Usage in TMR is similar to using water to reduce dry matter content (10 to 15 percent of TMR as fed).
  • Milk storage and handling – Limited ability to store milk for longer than 1 day restricts possible usage. Pumps/hoses will be needed to add to the TMR. Farms likely would need to dispose of a portion of milk via the manure lagoon or direct land application as it is likely not possible to feed all the milk each day.
  • Diet spoilage/odors/flies – Unpasteurized milk added to the TMR may cause unpleasant odors due to microbial growth, especially in warm weather. Monitoring feed intake and the TMR for heating and smell is needed. Consider adding a TMR preservative to control microbial growth and spoilage. Flies will also become an issue when adding milk to a TMR. A feed-through insect regulator is useful to control fly populations. Feed-bunk and equipment cleanliness is critical to minimize fly populations feeding on milk residues.

Several questions have been raised on just reducing total herd production by limiting nutrition. First, all rations should be reviewed to balance for the most pounds of solids. Then look at the lower half of the herd and see if there are less expensive feed ingredients and adjust feeding levels. The high producing group has priority to reach their highest peak in total solids per day and get bred back. Remember, this situation will not last forever and when things get back to the new normal, producers will still have to have cows freshening, milking well and breeding back. Thus, flattening the production peak is a risky option for producers in the long run.

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