What does the cow of the future look like?

January 27, 2017

dairy cows

My husband and I are both fairly tall (I am 5’11” and he’s 6’2”) so when we decided to start a family we were both confident that our children would be too. Each are currently measuring in at the upper 90th percentile for height at their well-baby visits, so you can see where they each get it! Our calves also inherit genes from both their dam (mom) and their sire (dad). Of late there has been discussion regarding cows being selectively bred to produce larger and more productive offspring. What does this mean and what does the future of the bos taurus species look like?

A bit of background, a broad overview of USDA statistics show a fairly steady increase in milk production, and a consistent decline in the number of dairy operations matched by a continual rise in the number of cows per operation. This boils down to fewer cows producing more milk. How is this possible? Are farms pushing the limit regarding milk production?

Here on our 5th generation dairy our per-capita milk production has increased. This can be attributed to better management decisions. For example, we strive to grow and harvest high quality corn and alfalfa forages. Feed management means samples are regularly taken and analyzed by our nutritionist who customizes the cattle’s diet based on specific nutrient requirements. This is completed by ingredient analysis and by balancing the available nutrients. The saying, ´you are what you eat´ does not just apply to humans!

The second improvement has to do with animal management and selective breeding. At Mackinson Dairy, our goal is to breed cows with strong feet and legs, and udders that last generations. My brother Matt then matches the dam to an ideal sire. Then we cross our fingers and wait approximately 283 days. All dairy farmers hope for a healthy heifer (girl) calf that will become a productive adult and carry on the ideal characteristics she possesses. It will be another two years before this heifer enters our milking herd.

While there is no standard practice for dairy farmers across this great country, I did ask two other dairy farmers about their own personal breeding philosophy. Nate Chittenden of Dutch Hollow Farm in New York milks 700 Jerseys and echoes our breeding philosophy. Nate says, “We breed our cows to make milk but we focus on well-built udders that last.” In other words, more milk from better cows. Bobbi Frost of Harrold’s Dairy milks 400 head of mostly Holsteins in beautiful Oregon. Bobbi says that “we have never made selections purely based on milk production.´´ Three completely different dairies, even different breeds of cows but we all have the same objective: good management. Thus regardless of whether you are on the Atlantic, the Pacific or in the Midwest; smart management means more milk from fewer moderately framed cows.

I envision the dairy cow of the future to be efficient. She will undoubtedly be a beautiful animal, one that is mobile and strong regardless of her coat color. She will exhibit the strength and physical characteristics which lead to a long, healthy and productive milk producing life. Some farmers may have animals that are large in stature and they excel in their operation because the farms are actually designed around those cows and their needs, and the same goes for farms with smaller sized cows. As a consumer you may have questions and you may want to get to know us, the people and lives behind the product. For this reason our barn door is always open so feel free to ask your questions. The bottom line is healthy cows produce milk and dairy products which can provide your entire family with a unique package of 9 essential nutrients. The increased efficiency and milk the cows produce, does not come at the expense of the animals, it is all due to how we manage our farms and cows, for the better. In reality, the only time size matters; is when deciding how many scoops of ice cream to enjoy in your sundae.

Originally posted on the Mackinson Dairy Farm website. 

Mary Faber

Mary raises dairy cattle and grain with her husband, Jesse, and two children in central Illinois. Mary's great-grandfather started the dairy farm over 150 years ago with just a handful of cows. Today, her family continues to live and farm on those original acres. Farming is a history and a passion for Mary and her family!

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