This is not a fun topic. Normally, we are trying to maximize milk production while maintaining good animal welfare. However, in these unprecedented times (thanks COVID-19), one may need to limit or reduce the volume of milk leaving the farm. The Penn State Extension, Cornell PRO-DAIRY, and University of Wisconsin Extension teams have discussed options for moderating milk production. These are summarized below.

Reduce animal numbers – heifers

While this wouldn’t have an impact on milk production, it would reduce costs. How many heifers do you really need? If your reproductive management is good, the heifer herd size can be at 7 per 10 head in the milking/dry herd. Don’t pour resources into calves that had respiratory issues; cull them early before they cost you any more money. Calves with lower genetic potential would also be candidates for leaving the farm as calves.

Reduce animal numbers – cows

What cows are good candidates for culling? Chronic mastitis cases, those with more than three services, poor first-lactation performers (How likely, really, are they to get better?), and lame cows (if low body condition, let them put on some weight) should be on the list.

Reduce milk production – dry off cows early

Identify pregnant cows with higher cell counts. Keep and feed separately early-dried off cows from closer-up cows in order to control body condition. Be sure there’s space for them, maybe summer pasture?

Reduce milk production – switch from 3x to 2x milking

Start this process with later-lactation and pre-peak (<30d) cows. Try not to mess with cows at peak production.

Reduce milk production – diet changes

Increase forage component of the diet (dictated in part by forage inventory). Decrease starch to <20% for later-lactation cows (keep peak- and early-lactation cows steady).

Limit feeding is another potential option where one feeds 5-10% less dry matter per day. Research from Europe suggests it will reduce milk volume but increase milk fat, protein, and lactose percentages, although there is not much data for this approach in cows. Feed efficiency increases, but there must be adequate bunk space for everyone because they will clean it out. Again, this is a better option for post-peak rather than peak cows. Consult with the nutritionist.

Alternative milk use – feed calves more milk, longer

Replace milk replacer use and replace (a lot of, all?) starter with whole milk, up to 10-12 qts/day. Be sure to provide some hay or (good) silage for rumen development. Consider including a milk fortifier with a coccidiostat and trace minerals. Wean by 12-14 weeks so they don’t get fat and adversely affect mammary development. Watch out for cross-sucking, and put weaners in noses as needed. They may need more of a gradual transition at weaning.

Alternative milk use – feed heifers

This is best done (if it’s possible at all) in a TMR; be sure to keep the TMR >40% dry matter. Make sure to have a break in milk feeding (that is, wean calves, then add milk back to diet after a while). An advantage is eliminating grain costs for heifers.

Alternative milk use – feed cows

Milk can go into the diet at up to 10-20 lbs (1.3-2.6 lbs DM) per day, but the TMR DM needs to stay >40%. Milk can replace some protein supplement (useful if distillers grain supply has disappeared), along with energy. Of course, consult the nutritionist. There are disadvantages. In warmer weather especially (smell, flies!), bunk clean-up frequency will need to increase, and refusals may not work as heifer or dry cow feed. There is risk of disease transmission, particularly Salmonella but also mastitis agents Staph. aureus and Mycoplasma. Pasteurization would mitigate those problems, but the volume in question could prove challenging. Always prioritize pasteurization of milk for calves. Bulk tank testing would be informative.

Alternative milk use – disposal

Milk as nutrients for soil instead of as nutrients for people is disheartening to be sure. If it comes to this, make sure any land application is in accordance with your animal waste management plan.

Overriding points to remember: determine your financial status (debt load per cow and cost of production) so you know your reference points, and when reducing milk production, think about minimizing long-term impacts. The goals are to reduce losses or penalties while keeping cows healthy and efficient.

For more reading/viewing/listening on the topic:

Cornell PRO-DAIRY

article Diet and Management Considerations for Emergencies: Reducing Milk Flow Without Harming Cows and Threatening Future Production

Penn State Extension Dairy

webinar Weighing Your Options through Milk Supply Management

University of Wisconsin Extension Dairy Team

article Strategies to Reduce Milk Production with Limited Impacts on Future Production

article Considerations when landspreading milk or manure/milk mixtures

In these tumultuous times, both personal and economic, Penn State Extension is offering a webinar on “how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions in our dairy economy, and how farms can best respond”. They will also explore options for reducing production.

The webinar is Tuesday, April 28, 6:00-7:00 a.m. PDT.

Pre-registration is required, by Monday, April 27.

Here is the link to the full description and registration: https://www.cvent.com/events/weighing-your-options-through-milk-supply-management/event-summary-b4b192c9b6ac4d0383b4b5fc1868ea46.aspx?i=a2ff6efa-bfd2-42a4-83d3-0db67cc12a2b&fbclid=IwAR1FKTvqPzlvEEgiAztcRSg4EEVG1qV15gtt0IRlxDMCU8iseew6XAtXuGI

While we all learn to deal with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the following resources might be of use. Please note that circumstances are changing breathtakingly fast; this information is current as of the date above.

Cornell University ProDairy did a webinar on March 20 (2020) about COVID-19 and Your Dairy. The webinar recording goes an hour and 15 minutes; they have also provided a pdf with the slides if you’d prefer to just scan through those. While the New York-specific information may not be so relevant, see the sections with federal policies, advisory information, and suggestions for on-dairy adjustments to operations.

This University of Maine Extension bulletin offers some useful guidance as well, including a prioritized farm chore checklist.

Oregon Department of Agriculture COVID-19 Resources provide details on changes to ODA’s operations (dairy inspections to continue as usual; CAFO inspections to proceed as long as social/physical distancing can be maintained) and other useful information.

Oregon Dairy Farmers Association COVID-19 Resources include links to description of changes to federal leave requirements, dairy-specific resources, and templates of “travel-to-work letters” (should they at some point be needed). Note: there is currently no requirement to provide documentation for employees in essential industries, per the Oregon State Police.

A coronavirus (in cross-section) for comparison. This one caused MERS.
image: CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith; Azaibi Tamin, Ph.D. (2013)
A coronavirus (in cross-section, via electron microscopy) for comparison. This one causes MERS.
image: CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith; Azaibi Tamin, Ph.D. (2013)
Solar eclipse (1981) showing sun's corona. A view that inspired the name of the virus that has upended everything at the current moment. image: Ray Thomas, http://brisray.com/
Solar eclipse showing sun’s corona. A view that inspired the name of the type of virus that has upended everything at the current moment.
image: Ray Thomas, http://brisray.com/ (1981)