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Milking traits Cattlemen chasing milk traits may be leaking profit

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on Jan. 18, 2020

Producers selecting beef cattle for milk may be throwing away more than they are gaining, according to University of Nebraska animal nutritionist. Travis Mulliniks.  

Mulliniks told cattlemen during the University of Nebraska Gudmundsen Sandhills open house that many breeds have selected heavily for milk since the 1990s. The Angus breed, for instance, produces more milk now at a higher quality than the 1970s Holstein.  


“We are chasing more and more milk in some breeds, but how does that impact cow-calf profitability?” Mulliniks asked.  

Mulliniks referred to a study out of Iowa and Illinois, which concluded the two largest drivers of profitability in a cow-calf operation are feed costs and depreciation.  

Feed costs create a 50 percent variation in profit, and depreciation operation costs are 70 percent. At five percent, calf weaning weight is one of the lowest.  

“What that means is we are chasing output traits of the calf that are maternal traits, like milk, to increase survivorship greater than 50 percent. But, it doesn’t pay,” he said. “Moving forward, we need to find ways to increase productivity and decrease costs. By selecting for milk, we may be doing the exact opposite. We’re increasing costs without getting that productivity out of them.”  

The top five ways low cost producers have reduced costs, according to IRM data, is by reducing supplemental feed costs, improving grazing management and using the right genetics.  

“They really all go together. If we improve grazing management, we can reduce your feed costs, and if we improve genetics, we can reduce feed costs,” Mulliniks pointed out. 

Feed energy 

Almost 70 percent of the feed energy needed to produce an animal from conception to slaughter comes from the cow-calf side in basic cow maintenance costs and body function.  

“There is a lot of energy we are putting in cows to get that slaughter animal,” Mulliniks said. “It is an inefficient maintenance system, and we are selecting animals that are bigger and produce more milk that have even higher maintenance costs. That is why it is becoming more important to select cows that fit the environment.”  

Consider the amount of milk produced by the cow and when she is producing it.  

“The amount of nutrients available at that peak lactation time will differ depending upon the season. Producers should consider matching the genetic potential of the cow to the forage resources available at those time points,” he explained.  

The nutrient requirements for a 1,200 pound cow producing 23 pounds of milk at peak lactation will be highest 60 days after calving when she is also trying to rebreed,” he said. “A March or a May calving herd that milks more than 22 pounds of milk at peak lactation will all be in a negative energy deficit going into breeding, which means they are milking more than the nutrients are supplying in the forage.”  

He continued, “In the May herd, even the cow that milks 22 pounds, which is considered low in today’s standards, is already in a deficit,” Mulliniks explains.  

“The amount of milk selected for in a summer calving herd has to be much lower than a time point when we have much higher quality forage,” he noted. 

Pregnancy rates 

High milk production and low quality forage were contributing factors to a low pregnancy rate amongst beef cows in 2018, Mulliniks said.  

“If we look at a cow that milks 10 pounds and one that milks 20 pounds a day, as forage quality declines, the forage intake needed to meet her requirements increases,” he explained. “We were trying to rebreed cows at four-to-eight percent crude protein last year, so that cow milking 20 pounds a day has to eat 30+ pounds on a dry matter basis to meet her requirements.”  

“For a cow that size, she is probably eating around 26-28 pounds. As forage quality declines, these cows that milk more can’t eat enough to make up the difference. She loses more body weight to make up that deficit,” he explained. 

“The other thing to consider is there’s a limit to the amount of milk production an environment can stand,” he said. “Since 1972, weaning weight has increased, according to genetic trends. We are selecting for more and more growth in our offspring, but when you look at it in terms of phenotypic data collected since 1991, weaning weight has not changed in these data sets.”  

There is a lot of potential for growth, but when you look at actual growth, we are not getting it. Why? There are only so many nutrients in our forage systems to provide enough to achieve these growth potentials. We can select for more and more growth, but we can only get so much out of our environment,” Mulliniks relayed 

If weaning weight is a proxy for reproduction, reproduction in the US has not changed in the last 30 years. “ 

Calf weaning weight is not changing, reproduction is not changing, but our costs of production are increasing,” Mullinks said. “We have to consider what type of cows we have and are they fitting our environment?” 

Gayle Smith is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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