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Considerations for improving milk production and increasing pounds of calf produced

Steve Blezinger for Progressive Cattleman Published on 21 December 2018
Cow and her calf

At its core, the beef cattle industry is tasked with one thing: producing pounds of beef. And while this sounds overly simplistic, we have to remember: The growth, improvement and profitability of the cattle industry depends on producing a quality food product as efficiently as possible.

So since man began producing cattle for food, he has worked to produce more pounds and produce them as efficiently as possible. This is not always an easy task.

So what do we know about increasing the pounds of beef generated at the cow-calf level? We can assess this per acre of land the producer controls or per cow breeding unit. In either case, there are a large number of variable factors that have an effect. Some can be controlled; some cannot.

Year in and year out, environmental factors can have a very significant effect. Lack of moisture and, in some cases, excessive moisture can have direct effects on the forage quantity available, both growing and stored. It can also have an effect on quality or nutritional value. This may be related to weather events or by regions of the country where rainfall is less or more sporadic. Soil quality can have an effect.

Some of these can be modified or manipulated by management or inputs of some type. We can manage for poor forage condition through use of irrigation systems, well-planned pasture management or purchased forages or other feeds and supplements.

Nutritional management with the forage base as the foundation can be effectively managed to help ensure appropriate nutrients are available at the appropriate times of the production sequences. A very big part of this is the factors that affect milk production levels in the cow.

The genetic factor

Selection and use of proper genetics for both the cow herd and bulls is critical and directly related to weights of produced calves both at weaning and later at harvest. Heritability traits come into play as we consider reproductive performance in the herd. A great deal of research has been conducted to evaluate different breeds, breed types, breed combinations, crossbreeding programs and so on.

Recognizing the value of the bulls used for breeding is critical and can have a significant effect on numbers of calves produced per cow group he (they) may be “assigned” to. Use of tools like expected progeny differences (EPDs) can be a helpful guide in selecting bulls that have good referenced values for weaning and yearling weights as well as other important traits.

The cow is also part of the genetic pool which dictates the growth and size of calves at birth, weaning and at harvest. Selection of cows that can be identified either through careful selection and monitoring of performance, as well as through the use of EPD references, is also an important tool.

The genetic potential of the cow extends beyond its contribution of DNA to the calf. The cow’s ability to produce milk (volume and quality) is a key contributor to the nutrition needed for growth of the calf from birth until weaning. Again, significant research has been applied to the milking ability of the cow. EPD references can be used if the cow herd is purebred in origin. Commercial cows are not as easily selected based on these references. If bulls are purchased that have high maternal and milk EPDs, there is a better likelihood his female offspring will be superior milkers and can potentially improve calf growth and weaning weights.

There has been some debate over the value of these reference numbers since, first, it requires a lot of in-depth recordkeeping and attention to details. Secondly, these numbers are only of value if the producer uses them as a guide and follows up with careful performance and phenotypic selection criteria.

Additionally, cows with strong milk potential (high milk EPDs) must also be carefully matched with their environment and nutritional program. Research has shown cows with this production potential may also have higher-than-average (for their contemporary group) maintenance nutritional values. We commonly talk about maintenance nutritional values based on energy (caloric) intake, but this can extend over to other nutrients such as protein, amino acid balance and minerals.

If we select for a cow that genetically may possess a higher-than-average milking potential, the cow may, in fact, produce more pounds of calf at weaning. If we make this selection but fail to support the cow’s nutritional needs, that production potential may be diminished or lost. It is also not uncommon for high-milk-production cows, with higher-than-average maintenance nutritional requirements, to suffer at rebreeding (delayed cycling or conceptions) if their maintenance nutrient needs are not met. This defeats the purpose of selecting for this type of female.

Managing for milk quality

Another contributing factor to overall calf growth and production performance is the quality of milk itself. The dairy industry has researched milk quality extensively. For dairy cows, in many markets, the value of the milk sold from the dairy is dictated by the volume of milk produced as well as the “solids,” which include protein, fat and carbohydrates (lactose).

In markets where these components are important (generally in areas where significant cheese production is found), the dairy producer focuses on not only volume but also protein and fat levels of the milk his or her cows produce. In other words, there is a concern for the nutritional value of the milk and, in particular, the energy value.

The beef industry has not focused as greatly on the nutritional components of milk produced. While a certain consideration may be given to overall milk volume, components such as protein, fat and lactose are generally seldom considered.

It should be considered: If a cow is capable of producing 20 pounds of milk per day, at a fat content of 3.5 percent, that cow is producing 0.7 pound of fat every day. Spread over a 210-day nursing period, this totals 147 pounds of fat. Similarly, if the cow’s milk averages 3 percent protein, it is producing 0.6 pound of protein per day and 126 pounds of protein over the same nursing period.

If that same cow has the genetic potential to produce 25 pounds of milk per day, at the same levels of fat and protein production, its daily levels of production are 0.875 and 0.75 pound, respectively. Over the nursing period, the cow can potentially produce 183.75 pounds of fat (36.75-pound increase) and 157.5 pounds of protein (31.5-pound increase). These increases in both milkfat and protein can serve to increase growth rates in the calf. Conversely, through improved nutrition, the cow may increase milk production as well as both fat and protein production.

We can select for cows with higher milking potential and birth, and both EPD and direct animal selection are effective tools. However, with the goal to produce a heavier calf, and thus more pounds of beef, we need to keep a couple of factors in mind. The higher-milk-producing cow will need a stronger nutritional base. This may potentially cost the producer more. Thus, the return on investment must be considered. Secondly, again, through proper nutrition it may also be possible to support better milk components and thus increase nutrient density of the milk. This, again, will serve to potentially improve calf growth.


While it is important to keep costs down, it is also critical to be sure your program is maintained. Even relatively small, incorrect choices can have dramatic effects. Recognize and evaluate where all production costs are derived. Then ask, “Is this something I can truly afford to compromise?” In many cases the answer will be “no,” and your overall profitability will be higher because you made what initially feels like a wrong decision.  end mark

PHOTO: Cows with strong milk potential must be carefully matched with their environment and nutritional program. Staff photo.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475. Follow him on Facebook at Reveille Livestock Concepts.

Steve Blezinger
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  • Nutritional and Management Consultant
  • Reveille Livestock Concepts
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