Older cows: good for ROI and sustainability 


By increasing the longevity of cows, dairy farmers should be able to make a better profit and even cut the greenhouse gas emissions. Because going for sustainable farming should go hand in hand with running an economically viable farm.  

Over the last decades, dairy cows have been selected and bred to become high performing athletes, producing high amounts of milk per year. In practice, farmers make use of these high yielding cows, especially to boost total production volumes in the first 3 lactations of the herd. At the same time, several studies show that older cows increase their milk production per lactations. Data from IDA, the artificial intelligence platform developed by Connecterra, shows that when looking at the individual cows we see that the milk volume gradually increases with age, with lactation number 4 being even better than lactation number 3 (Table 1), although the number of cows in the group reduces when lactation numbers go up. So in practice, we see that 76% of the total milk produced at the farm comes from cows that are in their first, second and third lactation cycle, because the majority of the cows at the farm belong to these groups (Table 2)”, explains Jorge Sáez Gómez, Director of Data Science at Connecterra. 

Table 1 – Milk yield increase between lactation 1 and 9 (based on data from a selection of Dutch dairy farms between 2014-2019). 

Lactation number  305-day milk yield (kg) Number of cows per lactation group
1 8054.7 6080
2 9303.6 4721
3 9719.0 3436
4 9848.1 2070
5 9489.2 1128
6 9169.3 517
7 8774.3 242
8 8578.4 110
9 9025.6 37

Table 2
– Most milk comes from the cows that stay on farm in the first 3 lactations (based on data from a selection of Dutch dairy farms between 2014-2019).   

Lactation number % of total milk volume on farm
1 29.83
2 26.50
3 20.89
4 11.80
5 6.35
6 2.84

Economics of keeping the cows longer 

A growing body of research confirms that keeping the cows longer on the farm can be beneficial. In 2012, a group of Austrian researchers looked at the economic evaluation of longevity in organic dairy farming. Performance and reproductive data of 44,976 Austrian organic Simmental dairy cows were analysed by applying a bio-economic model. A farm scenario as well as different market situations were modelled. The Austrians showed that overall costs declined with increasing longevity, due to dropping replacement costs. Annual profit was influenced considerably by milk yield and longevity. They found that short-lived animals needed substantially higher annual milk yields than long-lived animals to achieve equal annual profits. The research showed that extending longevity allows lower milk yield levels without decreasing profitability, lower use of concentrates and reduced dependence on off-farm inputs and market fluctuations are further benefits. 

Increasing lifespan, less greenhouse gases 

Besides being more profitable, increasing longevity is also seen as an important measure of improved animal welfare and sustainability of the sector, according to research from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. And this is important as the global dairy sector is increasingly looking for tools and ways to become more sustainable (reflected in a reduction of the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) produced on farm). Recent Swiss and German research looked at the relationship between age of the cows and the total methane output. In the studya simplified GHG balance was calculated for each animal based on the milk produced at the time of the experiment and for their entire lifetime milk production. For the lifetime production, they also included the emissions arising from potential beef produced by fattening the offspring of the dairy cows. The researchers showed that increasing the length of productive life of dairy cows is a viable way to reduce the climate impact and to improve profitability of dairy production. And increasing the lifespan, as part of achieving sustainability goals is already incorporated in some projects. In the Netherlands for example, one of the goals set in the Sustainable Dairy Chain is a 6-month increase in the average lifespan of cows (IDF Dairy Sustainability Outlook 2019). 

The IPPC and WRI reports

And these type of research studies and projects are key, because sustainability, climate change and agriculture’s climate impact is high on the agenda, reflected in the recent IPPC report, released on August 8, focusing on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. The report covers the ways that human agriculture, forestry, and land use contributes to climate change, the way climate change is impacting these activities, and what we can do about both of those things. In addition, the recent WRI report emphasises that improving highly inefficient systems causes emissions per kilogram of meat or milk to fall very sharply at first as output per animal increases (Figure 1). And the sector already booked successes in this. Earlier analysis by the FAO and GDP identified that (emissions per unit of product) has been reduced by 11% from 2.8 to 2.5kg CO2 equivalents per kg of product produced. A higher efficient cow can be reached when lifespan of the cow increases or by selecting the cows that have a higher than normal feed efficiency (a feature of IDA we call Cow Ranking).   

Figure 1 – More efficient milk production reduces greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. 


Actionable insights are key 

A farmer can do a set of things. Even some breeding companies have added breeding values for longevity, so farmers can specifically select for this trait. But to increase the lifespan and hence work on sustainability, the farmer first has to know where he is at. In other words, what is the reason that cows are replaced currently, and has this been the same on his farm in the years before? The decision to keep cows longer on the farm coincides with putting more focus on animal health and fertility among other things. Sáez Gómez: “At Connecterra we support farmers to run a more productive, sustainable and profitable farm. Looking at cow longevity is part of that. At the same time, increasing cow longevity means that cow healthfertility and welfare must remain high and needs constant attention and monitoring. Only then, the expected milk volumes can be reached, and farm profitability can remain at a good level. Older cows may need some extra care and assistance to become in heat and to get inseminated successfully. By using IDA, the farmer has an extra set of eyes for oestrus detection and can sooner act on first signs of sickness. This in turn can result in saving money on missed heat alerts and veterinary costs for example”. 

Further optimisation of the dairy herd

In conclusion, we can say that sustainability becomes more important for dairy farmers and the total dairy production chain. The implementation of actions to increase sustainability is therefore key. “The farmer can only do this by maintaining a high health status for the total herd. Healthy cows are a prerequisite for further optimisation of the dairy herd, increase cow longevity, become more sustainability and to safeguard the good image of being a responsible dairy farmer”, Jorge Sáez Gómez concludes.  

By Emmy Koeleman, Global Market Communications Manager at Connecterra.