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More Milk From Fewer Cows

How do you get more from less? Ask the Canadian dairy industry.

Since 2005, the number of dairy farms in Canada has fallen by 15 per cent. The number of cows is down 3.7 per cent.

But the annual volume of milk produced has increased 3.6 per cent over the past five years, according to the Canadian Dairy Commission’s recently released annual report.

In 2009-10, Canada’s 13,214 dairy farms (388 of them in Manitoba) generated 83.56 million hectolitres of fluid milk, compared to 80.64 million hl from 15,522 farms in 2005-06, CDC reported.

Over that time, the number of milk cows declined to 981,000 from just over one million.

“There’s no plateau in sight for a long time,” said Brian Van Doormaal, Holstein Canada’s CEO.


Some producers are bit more cautious.

“I don’t think physically cows can give a lot more but I won’t say they never will,” said Chad Andres, who milks 95 Holsteins south of Steinbach. Holsteins make up 94 per cent of all dairy cattle in Canada.

Canadian Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) records show the average dairy cow produces 9,592 kg of milk annually. Take away lower-producing non-Holsteins and the figure is over 9,600 kg, said Van Doormaal.

In 1990, the average Holstein cow produced 7,600 kg of milk a year, representing a 26 per cent increase in 20 years.

The reasons? The industry is reaping the benefits of quality dairy genetics, better nutrition and improved management, officials say.

Of the three, genetics are the biggest reason for major production advances in such a short time, according to Van

Doormaal. He said two-thirds to three-quarters of the average gain in production is due to superior genetics.

Van Doormaal credits data collection and genetic evaluation for the advancement.


Three-quarters of Canada’s dairy herds are on DHI, which requires good record-keeping. Milk control and other data fed into a national system helps the Canadian Dairy Network (CDN) in genetically evaluating bulls and offspring. CDN calculates breeding values and provides the information to genetic companies. Besides providing semen and embryos, companies can provide computerized mating programs so producers can select for specific traits and avoid inbreeding.

Van Doormaal, who is also CDN’s general manager, said genomic evaluations, available since August 2009, enable the industry to enhance the estimation of genetic potential using DNA testing.

But selecting for production is only one part of a breeding program. All agree single-trait selection can be counterproductive because it ignores other traits that make for a good dairy cow.

“You need a balanced approach to your breeding. Guys that have bred just for milk, their cows often go downhill over a couple of generations,” said Andres.

“You need to build the cow first before you can crank the milk out of her.”

Van Doormaal agreed that selecting and breeding only for increased production can run producers into problems.

He, too, recommends an emphasis on balanced breeding to include other traits: good conformation, sound hooves and high dry matter intake.

Maintaining genetic variability is essential for diversity in the population, Van Doormaal said.

“As soon as genetic variation is zero, you cannot do any more selection.”


Andres ranks cow comfort and sound rations ahead of genetics when it comes to keeping dairy animals healthy, content and productive.

It used to be easier to feed dairy cows years ago when their milk production was much lower. Today, providing high-yielding dairy cows with the nutrients they need to produce according to their genetic potential can be very challenging, said Kees Plaizier, a University of Manitoba dairy science professor.

“Nowadays, you really need to fine tune diets very well. It’s become much more of a science now than it was in the past,” Plaizier said.

“It can all be done but how much does it cost?”

Rob Berry, a Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives dairy specialist, said feeding increasingly higher-quality rations to genetically advancing cows may eventually not be worthwhile.

“As you push cows further and further, your nutritional inputs are getting more and more and there’s a diminishing return,” Berry said.

But Van Doormaal feels there’s still room for genetic advancement. He says he knows of some herds that average up to 14,000 kg of milk per cow annually.

There’s no reason why the dairy cow of the future couldn’t reach that, given the right combination of genetics, nutrition and management, Van Doormaal says.

Genomics, DHI, cow comfort and related topics are on the agenda for the Manitoba Dairy Conference in Winnipeg Dec. 1-3. [email protected]


There’snoplateauin sightforalongtime.”


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