Could once-a-day milking help with under-conditioned cows?

Breeding – if not already started – is set to kick into gear on many dairy farms over the coming days and a successful outcome is critical for farm profitability going forward.

The winter/spring period just passed is set to be remembered for years to come and it resulted in fewer grazing days than desired on many operations.

Where grass had to be replaced with alternative feedstuffs – some of which were not of the same quality as spring grass – farmers may find that a cohort of their cows are running below the targeted breeding body condition score of 2.9 (range of 2.75 to 3.25).

In situations where this is the case, it’s necessary to take corrective action early to get thin cows back in calf – especially when the cost of bringing a replacement heifer into the herd is considered.

At a cost of over €1,500, it will take 1.63 lactations to fully recoup the initial investment of introducing a heifer to the herd.

In addition, you could potentially lose out on production. An analysis carried out by Teagasc – on the national database of milk recorded cows – found that second-lactation cows yielded 14% more milk solids than first-parity animals and mature (third-to-sixth lactation cows) yielded, on average, 21% more milk solids than first-lactation cows.

With this in mind, it’s important to try and maintain a balanced herd structure and this can only be achieved if corrective action is taken to maximise pregnancies within the milking herd.

Furthermore, limiting the number of cows that have to be culled for involuntary reasons – such as not being in calf – will allow you to apply greater selection pressure on the female side of the equation.

If all of your replacement heifers are being used to address involuntary culls, there’s very little scope to cull cows on the basis of production or, moreover, lack of production.

Addressing the issue

When it comes to addressing the issue of under-conditioned cows, simply putting more concentrates into the diet will not solve the problem; the cow – more than likely – will just put additional milk into the bulk tank.

Therefore, alternative solutions – such as putting under-conditioned cows on once-a-day milking – should be considered.

By milking the cow once a day, the energy requirement for milk production drops significantly and it affords the cow the opportunity to put condition on her back. This is especially the case when the cow is fed at the same rate as if she was milked twice a day.

Once-a-day milking may also be a solution to bring late-calving cows back closer to the mean herd calving date. According to Teagasc, milking cows once a day during the first six weeks of lactation results in an immediate milk production loss of 20-30% or 13% of the entire duration of the lactation.

Like above, the cow will have a lower overall energy requirement for production and, instead, will be able to partition more energy towards maintenance.

Although positive results can be obtained from once-a-day milking, there’s a word of warning needed; it should only be practiced if you have a handle on cell count and mastitis issues.