The 40,000 Pound Herd

It seemed not long ago that I sat through a seminar on managing the 30,000-pound herd. I recently attended a half-day seminar, just 10 years later, with experts talking about feeding, reproduction and genetics for herds averaging 40,000 pounds.

That’s a lot of milk. It averages about 18,200 kilograms or 17,600 litres per cow.

Is a 40,000-pound herd average impractical to consider? Maybe not. The 30,000-pound herd average was, at one time, out of the question, as was the 20,000-pound average a decade earlier.

Results of a survey presented at the seminar revealed that dairy farmers are reaching the 30,000-pound level. The survey looked at the management practices for the highest-producing Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) operations in the U.S. The 114 top farms, mostly from the northern half of the U.S., averaged 29,410 pounds (13,368 kg or 10,890 L).

These were family farms, with the average age of the principal operator between 40 and 49 years. They milked an average of 225 cows and had 28 dry cows. They planned to increase production in the future at an average rate of 1,267 pounds per year.

Diets were predominately corn silage, with alfalfa haylage second, followed by alfalfa hay. Feed supplements included cottonseed and roasted soybeans, as well as various sources of added fats. Traits they selected for, in order, were milk yield, type, protein and fat. Forty-one per cent routinely body condition scored their cattle. They checked for heat on average 2.8 times per day for 19 minutes each time.

The survey results set the stage for a panel of recognized experts to discuss the 40,000-pound question. Here are some of their thoughts on genetics, reproduction and feeding:


The biggest increases in production over time have been from improved genetics, pointed out Bennett Cassell, a geneticist at Virginia Tech. Progress has been due to direct selection for production, size and better udders. But there’s increasing concern about health and fertility.

New total merit indexes are being introduced in the U.S. according to the type of milk market—relative emphasis on milk yield versus fat and protein—along with some weight on herd life and negative weight on body size.


J. S. Stevenson of Kansas State University emphasized management by stages of the reproductive cycle. This includes a voluntary waiting period. These factors play a role:

  • reduced risk of metabolic disorders and diseases;
  • energy prioritization in the periparturient period and the initiation of estrus cycles;
  • levels of blood metabolites such as BUN (blood urea nitrogen), glucose and minerals in the close-up fresh period, although there is controversy over how to interpret these.

The onset of estrus cycles is variable. Results of controlled breeding programs show 20 to 25 per cent of cows aren’t cycling by day 40 to day 83. Programmed breeding programs have become popular to time estrus and also eliminate estrus detection errors that are sometimes as high as 32 per cent.

Stevenson also noted research that indicates an effect of mastitis incidence in the first 45 days of pregnancy. Mastitic cows had a 2.7 times greater risk of abortion in the next 90 days.


Diet formulation is among the priority items for high production, according to O. Kroll of the Hachaklait and Israel Cattle Breeders Association. Important factors include:

  • consistency of feed;
  • a large variety of components;
  • maximized dry matter intake;
  • keeping energy and protein in balance.

Other priority items for high production are cow comfort, overall health, costs and feeding strategy. As well he recommended an individual reproductive management strategy for each cow.

Kroll also said producers need to use "real time management." This involves integrating all the information available to make management decisions.

Consistent feed headed the "top five" list of factors devised by Mike Hutjens for successful management of high-production herds. Producers need to be aware of feed ingredient variation, and also the variation in how cows eat from a feed bunk.

The ability to sort feed ingredients in a total mixed ration (TMR) may undo a lot of ration formulation. Feedbunk sorting can allow cows to eat an extremely high starch diet during half the day, possibly leading to metabolic and foot problems, and a high-fibre diet with reduced intake and lower performance during the other half, said Hutjens, a well-known the University of Illinois dairy nutritionist. He recommends regularly checking feed bunk contents for composition and particle length.

Rounding out his top five were the heifer challenge (management of first-lactation cows), feed particle size, transition diets and skilled support.

What's Next?

The session’s final speaker, L. Jones of the FARME Institute in New York state, pointed out that we’ve made tremendous gains in production through application of technology in the various parts of the cow’s management cycle. The challenge we haven’t addressed, and need to, is the integration of all this information into super-effective day-to-day herd management, or real time management as Kroll called it.

Aiming for a 40,000-pound herd average may sound like shooting for the moon. Yet we can pick up some solid lessons by studying those dealing with the extreme high-end of milk production, just as young hockey players can learn from studying Wayne Gretzky’s on-ice moves. In the rest of the industry we can learn how to manage details better, or pick up sound ideas from people who challenge old thinking to find new, innovative ways of doing things.

For more information:
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Author: Blair Murray - Dairy Genetic Improvement Specialist/OMAFRA
Creation Date: 05 August 2000
Last Reviewed: 2 June 2010