It is well known that cow milk production is critical to calf health and growth. Ranchers have always tried to keep their distance from cows that "starved their calf" and point out cows that "must be good milkers because they sure are raising a good calf." Selection tools have allowed ranchers to increase pounds of calf weaned by increasing milk production in their cow herd, but what about the cost involved to increase that milk production?
A couple of years ago, I began to question how much milk my cows were giving, how much milk it took to increase calf weight, and how much forage it took for my cows to produce additional milk. The results were surprising. Several studies comparing cows with high and low levels of milk production found that as milk production increased, the efficiency of milk use decreased.
Total pounds of milk required to increase calf weaning weight by 1 lb. in three different studies are shown in the table. To increase calf weaning weight by 1 lb., the average pounds of milk required was 42.6 lb. for high milking cows and 20 lb. for low milking cows. This means calves from lower milking cows convert milk to weaning weight more efficiently than calves from high milking cows.
More forage required. A study conducted at Oklahoma State University showed that cows require 0.33 lb. of forage (on a dry matter basis) for every additional pound of milk produced. Using the previous milk use efficiency numbers, a feed-to-gain ratio of cow intake to calf weaning weight gain, due to increased milk production, can be calculated. High milking cows require 14 lb. of dry matter to produce 1 lb. of additional calf gain, while low milking cows require only 6.6 lb. of dry matter.
Cows that produce more milk require more forage and produce fewer pounds of calf per pound of milk. This gives a rancher three options: reduce stocking rate, haul in additional forage or feed, or over-graze pastures.
The table on page 14 compares high and low milking cows with impact on ranch profitability. Increasing cow milk production by 10 lb. per day is equal to increasing cow body weight by 200 lb.
As you can see at left, increasing milk production increased calf weaning weight and dollars per calf. However, the ranch couldn’t support as many cows, resulting in fewer total pounds of calves being sold at a lower price per pound and a decrease in income of more than $8,000.
Increasing milk production in your cow herd increase calf weaning weight but decreases gross income and profit due to the inefficiency of the conversion of grass to calf weight through milk production. If you want to maximize profit instead of weaning weight, you might want to select against increased milk production.
For additional resources on milk production and calf weaning weights, visit:
- Is the 4th generation on the ranch, founded in 1921
- Ranches with his parents
- John and M.J. Originally a Hereford operation but now uses Hereford, Angus and Charolais genetics
- 10,000 acres in the Arbuckle Mountains
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