America’s dairy cows are milk-producing machines, but is there a ceiling?

Feb. 15, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

Holsteins, the black and white spotted dairy cattle, are known for their long, lanky limbs and calm temperaments. (Photo by Luke Runyon, Harvest Public Media)

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There are fewer dairy cows today than just a few decades ago, but today’s cows are churning out more milk than ever. Dairy cows have been bred to be more productive, but that focus on genetics has some livestock advocates ringing alarm bells.

When it comes to milk production, no other cow tops Gigi.

“She’s a diva,” says Robert Behnke, a Brooklyn, Wisconsin dairy farmer and Gigi’s owner.

She earned her diva status. To break the record for milk production set in 2010, she produced just shy of 75,000 pounds of milk in one year, roughly equivalent to 8,700 gallons. That’s triple the national average for a dairy cow to produce in a year.

Gigi is a Holstein, the iconic black and white dairy cow. Her stature gives her the edge, clocking in at nearly a ton and her shoulder rising to 5-feet-2-inches-tall. Behnke says she’s as wide as a grown man’s shoulders. Her ability to produce is coded into her genes.

Gigi, a dairy cow in Brooklyn, Wis., holds the record for milk production in a one-year period. She produced nearly 75,000 pounds of milk, or roughly 8,700 gallons. (Photo courtesy Bur-Wall Registered Holsteins)

“Genetics is on our side,” Behnke said. “You can put anything in front of her and she will eat it.”

Like an Olympic sprinter, Gigi’s record-breaking year isn’t just due to her genes. She has a nutrition plan, a doctor who sees her regularly and technology to measure her progress.

What Gigi represents is a ceiling. Her record-breaking year tells the dairy industry that, for right now, 75,000 pounds of milk in a year is the threshold for what Holsteins’ bodies are capable of. But that threshold has been changing for years. Since dairy cows were first brought to the United States, their owners have been trying to coax more and more milk out of them. They’ve done that through dairy parlor design, barn layout, feed rations, milk scheduling and hormone treatments.

Now, genetics is a major focus. The largest cattle genetics companies, like Wisconsin-based Alta Genetics and Ohio’s Select Sires, hand out catalogs to prospective semen and embryo buyers with charts for studs and dams with measurements on everything from teat length to udder depth to rump width.

Explosive Growth

Wide adoption of artificial insemination in the U.S. dairy herd began in the 1970s. More recently, farmers have tried embryo transfer technology and sexed semen, which is processed to allow dairy farmers to only create daughter calves, eliminating male calves from the herd. Male calves are often sold off to feedlots or veal operations.

With genetic improvements American milk production has increased at a quickened pace. The average Holstein is churning out more milk than she was a few decades ago. In the last 10 years, production per cow has gone up 14 percent.

Modern Holsteins have grown larger than their forebearers. Tom Lawlor, a geneticist with the Holstein Association USA points out that they’re now “definitely bigger than the beef cows.”

“We’ve bred them to produce a lot of milk,” Lawlor said. “And what’s behind that is that they have a big appetite.”

Thousands of new calves are born every day on the country’s 46,000 dairy farms [pdf]. Most are the product of artificial insemination and other reproductive technologies meant to breed more productive, more efficient cows. Lawlor says that has led to an American dairy herd that churns out more milk per cow than at any other time in history.

“We’re just sifting through the cattle, identifying the ones that are just a little bit more productive, more healthier and trying to get more progeny from them and fewer from the other ones,” Lawlor said.

Animal Welfare Concerns

Like nearly everything in agriculture, the increase in milk production doesn’t come without a few trade-offs. Colorado State University animal science professor Temple Grandin has been critical of the dairy industry, saying some farms are too focused on breeding hulking Holsteins with insatiable appetites and deep udders.

“Instead of going for maximum milk production, let’s optimize it,” she said.

Colorado State University animal science professor Temple Grandin has been outspoken about issues of lameness in dairy cattle. (Photo courtesy Colorado State University Photography)

A narrow focus on production blinds dairy farmers to other important health issues on the farm like lameness and a drop in reproduction rates. Smaller cows tend to produce less milk, but last longer and calve more often. It may not be as profitable right away, but it pays off, Grandin says.

“If you go for the big, gigantic Holsteins, you only get two years of milking,” Grandin said. “That’s not very sustainable.”

Some dairies have begun to back off on production and breed smaller, but hardier cows, Grandin says. She praises large, progressive dairies like Indiana-based Fair Oaks Farm, which lets visitors tour its facility, complete with a rotating milking apparatus.

But warning signs are still present. Even the cows’ height brings up an animal welfare issue. Grandin, who stands at 5-foot-8, says she has seen Holstein steers with shoulders as tall as she is.

“They don’t fit on the trucks and they’re tearing up their backs. And we have a height limitation due to bridges,” Grandin said. “You’re not going to change that.”

Handling The Herd

If breeding ever-larger cows has some drawbacks, one way to coax more milk out of the herd is to focus on cow comfort and handling. On a cold winter morning at a farm with nearly 2,000 cows in Colorado's northeastern corner, veterinarian Doug Ford walks past an open dirt pen where the cows are able to move around. The farm’s owners did not want their names, nor the name of the farm to be published.

“Just look at these cows, look how content they are,” Ford said. “They are just enjoying the morning.”

As the veterinarian for several large dairies near Brush, Colorado, his philosophy on increasing production on a farm comes down to handling. Genetics plays a role, he says, but more important is using handling techniques to unlock a cow’s genetic potential. He teaches dairy staff low-stress methods, which allow the animals to move more freely between the milking parlor and their pens, focusing on how workers place their bodies in relation to the large bovines.

“In the industry we all have the same feed trucks. The same vaccines. What sets one operation apart from the other? It’s the people and it’s the way they treat the animals,” Ford said.

Some consumers would readily call this operation a factory farm because of its size, Ford says, but the realities of the market for milk have forced dairies to grow larger and become more efficient.

While the dairy industry itself has changed, so has the world’s taste for dairy products. Fluid milk sales continue to decline, while consumption of cheese and other processed dairy products has skyrocketed. In order to stay competitive, dairy farms have grown in size and capacity, trimming costs and finding new ways to stay efficient while maintaining the herd’s health — all in the service of producing more milk to make cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter.

Per-cow-production, though, can’t climb forever. Eventually, dairy farmers will hit the limits of what a cow’s body is able to do.


Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.