Raising dairy cows is a good way to provide your family with all the milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products you need – in fact, one cow is usually all you need to provide more than enough milk for most families.
But what do you do when your cows’ milk production drops off? Besides keeping your cows happy and healthy, there are a few other “hacks” you can try to keep them productive and in milk.
Here are some tips on how to get your cows to give more milk – see if they work for you!
1. Rethink Your Feed
This seems silly, but it doesn’t totally go without saying – you’ve got to feed your cows if you want them to produce milk!
Of course, it’s not just about feeding them in general. You also need to feed them the right foods if you want them to produce. You also need to consider how much you feed them. The quality and amount of milk that your cows produce is directly impacted by the conditions under which they are cared for.
Consider investing in proper sheds and feeders to help keep your cows in milk. Remember, feeding lactating cows is much different than feeding calves and heifers.
As with all lactating animals, your lactating cow will probably need more food, but this can vary dampened gain the weight, age, and activity level of your cow – along with seasonal conditions that can cause fluctuations in caloric needs.
If you’ve been feeding your cow religiously the same amount throughout the year, it might be time to rethink your rations. Make sure the feed you choose is being digested appropriately so that all nutrients are absorbed into the body, and your money isn’t being wasted.
One other important factor to consider when choosing feed for your dairy cows is to make sure that the fodder has enough dry matter.
For example, lots of people use Napier grass. Although Napier grass can sometimes encourage weight gain and milk production, it only contains about 20% dry matter, which isn’t great for digestion, and the production of milk fat.
At a very basic level, feeding your cow adequate for dairy production means providing enough fodder to fill its stomach and support its energy and milk production needs. Provide two feet of feeding space per cow and don’t let feeders go empty. You may need to push feed several times a day.
Don’t assume that an overweight cow will give you more milk, either. It unfortunately does not work that way! Monitor your cow’s body condition score to make sure she has not gained too much weight before and after calving.
Use the BCS your vet recommends and make sure that this core is not higher than 4. Cows that overeat can easily become overweight, which can cause health issues like ketosis and fatty liver.
2. Water Matters
While feed is probably the most important factor to consider when you’re learning how to improve your cows’ milk production, you can’t put water on the back burner, either.
In fact, dehydration is one of the leading causes of a drop in milk production. Therefore, you will want to make sure you have an extremely reliable water source.
The average cow needs at least 60 liters of water per day – give much more than this if you want to be sure that milk production will stay up.
3. Add Protein
If you’ve met the requirements mentioned above for water and fodder, think next to adding protein.
Although fodder is the most important, fodder is probably second. It will help your cow maintain good body condition and will also boost the activity of the microorganisms in your cow’s gut to help convert roughage into valuable nutrients.
Although protein can be more expensive, it’s important that you don’t cut back on protein in your cows’ feed. Good sources of protein include sweet potato, bean straw, and white clover. Leucaena and calliandra are good options, too – plus these last two tend to be relatively cost-effective.
4. Supplement Vitamins and Minerals
You may want to also add a few more vitamins and minerals to your cow’s diet. All pregnant and breastfeeding women are expected to take a balanced prenatal vitamin – so why wouldn’t you provide the same courtesy to your lactating dairy cow?
You can provide vitamins and minerals through mineral licks, which tends to be the best way to give your cows the nutrients they need. Remember, cows can’t produce their own vitamins D, E, and A. You’ll need to supply these in your cows’ diet to improve milk production and quality.
5. Don’t Expect Round-the-Clock Production
Some farmers assume that their cows should keep producing milk all the time, no matter what. However, this is not recommended. Keeping a cow lactating at all times can really destroy her health.
In fact, dairy cows have mammary glands that require non-lactating periods before they give birth. This dry period will improve milk production, and results in the formation of fresh udder tissue before lactation.
The dry period is important for the health of your cow as a whole, too, not even in relation to milk production. It can help strip pathogens in the udder that can make your cow extremely sick.
To dry off your cow, you’ll need to reduce water and withdraw grain for a few days. This will drop milk delivery before you stop milking altogether (which should be done around two months before your calf is expected).
Improving milk production starts with a good dry period. Make sure you maintain dry matter intake at 28 to 32 lbs (around 13 kgs) per day, and that you are preventing overfeeding energy. Keep your cows comfortable and pay special attention to their hoof health at this time, too.
6. Reduce Stress
Control stress in your dairy barns and make sure your cows are kept in clean, hygienic conditions. A sick or stressed cow is not only going to be an unhealthy cow, but she will also be one who produces poor-quality or poor yields of milk.
Do your best to control the temperature in your barn, although this can admittedly be difficult during tough seasons of the year. Low temperatures will cause your cows to become stressed.
In fact, cows have a defense mechanism that will lower milk production if it senses any kind of danger. This makes sense – your cow is trying to store energy that it might need to survive.
That said, cows don’t love being hot, either. Make sure the barn is comfortable and not too hot or wet. Avoid overcrowding – this can make cows stressed.
Clean and ample bedding is important for another reason, too. Healthy, lactating cows will lie down up to 15 times per day! This is necessary for milk production as it will improve your cow’s rate of circulation. Make sure your cow is kept comfortable at all times to increase milk production.
7. Watch For Inflammation
Udder inflammation can seriously decrease milk production – and the reason why is quite simple. Inflammation puts serious pressure on the glands of your cow, which causes it to believe that there is too much milk and decrease its production entirely.
Inflammation can last for several weeks or months, and is very difficult to reverse. Often, you’ll need to use a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. You can also use aloe vera.
Both of these treatments take time, however, so making sure your cow is kept in a healthy environment and fed a proper diet to prevent inflammation is wiser.
8. Get On a Good Weaning and Milking Schedule
When a cow gives birth to its calf, it will give milk (and keep doing so) until the calf is mature, usually for a period of one year.
Should you wean your calf completely or only partially? That’s a question to which the answer is still hotly debated. Ultimately, the decision is yours – and there are several reasons for both arguments.
If you decide to wean your calf completely so the cow’s milk is entirely available for your consumption, this can be a challenge.
You will have to remove the calf for a few days, and open it somewhere in which the two can’t see or hear each other. You’ll need to then bottle-feed the calf. This process can be very stressful for both parties involved.
Otherwise, you can partially wean your calf. This is a difficult process, too, as there’s a balance that needs to be followed (and it’s quite difficult to do).
You will need to keep the two separate but close enough that they can see each other, but then you control the feeding – your calf can only suckle after morning and evening milking have occurred.
Whichever option you choose, pick one and stick to it. There can’t be any back and forth or indecisiveness, as this will affect milk production and the health of your animals.
9. Change Your Winter Strategy
As I mentioned earlier, winter can really wreak havoc on your cows. You’ll need to provide more feed and water and you’ll also want to make sure that your cows are adequately fat before winter begins.
If your cows are too thin, they’ll need to use their fat stores to stay warm and won’t be able to produce much milk as a result. However, if they’re obese, other problems might arise.
There also needs to be ample opportunity for your cows to prepare physically for the winter in terms of their coat.
Keeping your cows in a barn year-round isn’t recommended because then they won’t be able to put on a coat that can handle winter temperatures. Instead, bring your cows outside slowly and often to acclimate to the cold.
Protect the teats of your cow during the winter, too. These areas are prone to becoming chapped, sore, and swollen, so apply a balm and make sure the teats are healthy to prevent infection and inflammation.
10. Jumpstart Early Milk Production
If you want to increase early milk production, a good way to do so is to increase dry matter intake to about 32 pounds daily. This should be done right after your cows give birth and can really help improve milk production at the onset.
11. Watch Calcium Levels During the First Few Weeks
Supplementing with vitamins and minerals, as I mentioned earlier, is important at all stages of your cow’s life. However, during the first few weeks of milk production, you may want to keep a closer eye on your cow to make sure she isn’t suffering from low calcium.
There are tests you can conduct, but two telltale signs that your cow is deficient in calcium are reduced milk yield and a decrease in appetite.
Low calcium presents several risks, including lowered milk yield but also ketosis, uterine problems, and metritis.
12. Monitor Cows with Known Health Problems
If your cows have suffered from lactation-related issues in the past, such as milk fever or mastitis, you should watch them more carefully during milking to make sure these problems don’t occur again.
13. Try a Feed Additive
There are certain feed additives you can use to boost milk production, depending on your budget and needs. Options include rumen-protected choline (which also protects liver health), ionophores, and additional amino acids, fats, and yeast cultures.
14. Store Feed in a Clean, Dry Environment
First, you don’t want pests getting into your cows’ feed. But second, feed that has become moldy or contained with other kinds of pathogens could potentially make your cows sick. At the very least, it might affect milk production.
Avoid moldy hay, and make sure your cows don’t have access to insufficiently fermented feeds and wild yeast.
15. Rotate Your Pastures
If you’re feeding cows on pasture, remove old feed daily, and feed a more balanced diet by rotating your cows on fresh pasture. The frequency with which you should rotate your cows will vary depending on how many cows you are running (along with other factors).
If you’ve already decided to keep a cow, you probably know that there are various environmental factors that come into play when keeping livestock.
You’ll need to consider the season and where you live – in some areas, it may be much more difficult to milk production in the winter than it is in the spring.
Keep Your Cows in Good Health for Optimal Milk Production
Of course, other good management tips will help you ensure good milk production, such as vaccinating your cows, checking for internal parasites, and engaging in regular herd health checks.
A healthy herd is a productive herd – but hopefully, these tips can help even the healthiest of herds to improve its daily milk production.
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).