Number of lactations per cow

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How to reach 5 lactations on a dairy farm?

80% of dairy cow health problems occur during transition to lactation

Managing the transition to lactation of dairy cows is the key to reach at least 5 lactations, because 80% of health problems occur during the transition period. About 30% of all dairy cows are subject to suffering:

  • 30% are wounded
  • 20% are lame
  • 50% have sole lesions
  • 50% have subclinical milk fever
  • 26% have mastitis
  • 25% suffer from subclinical ketosis
  • 20% of cows are being culled in their 1st lactation

Management practices on 50 large Dutch dairy farms was analysed and it was found that:

  • 20% carry out a heifer hoof check
  • 33% have a dry off group
  • 50% have 85 cm feed space per cow
  • 50% move cows on straw 10 days before calving
  • 20% use a cuddle box

Figure 1: the 6 freedoms of the pasture that will keep dairy cows happy and healthy.

The benefits of reaching 5 lactations (or more!)

In a study carried out by CRV[1], Lifetime production of 8.838 Dutch dairy cows that yielded 100.000 liters of milk or more was analysed. They reached their maximum yield in lactation or 7 and even lactations 8-10 showed a higher yield than lactations 1-3. To increase the number of lactations per cow, dairy cows should be given the 6 freedoms of the pasture, even if they are under a roof. Giving dairy cows the 6 freedoms of pasture is what will keep them healthy (see figure 1).

Increasing the number of lactations of dairy cows by 2 would make dairy farming more sustainable because it would result in a reduction of methane emission of about 30%. This reduction is due to the fact that:

  • The number of youngstock needed for replacement would go down by 50%
  • Heifers would calve at 23 months
  • Feed efficiency of older cows is better compared to younger ones

Figure 2, feeding time in cows with a ketosis value of <0.8 compared to cows with a ketosis value >0.8.

Dairy cows need a place to eat and a place to rest

It is crucial for cows to be able to spend enough time eating. There is a relation between resting time and feeding time. For every 3.5 minutes of extra resting time, cows will eat 1 minute longer. A Dutch study[2] showed a strong relation between feeding time and ketosis (see figure 2).

The same study showed a variation of 7-15 hours of resting time between farms included in the study. In another study, it was shown that cows with hypocalcaemia had eaten 7.5 kg less in the period before calving. This was due to:

  • Lack of sufficient eating and resting time
  • Insufficient space at the feeding fence
  • Insufficient number of beds
  • Late introduction into the calving group

A study carried out by Ohio State University[3] showed a reduction of stillbirth of 1.3% point for every hour of extra resting time.


If cows can stay healthy and happy, they will produce for 5 instead of 2,5 lactations. This will have huge benefits:

  • For the environment, e.g. less need for young stock for replacement so less need for natural resources and less methane emission.
  • Older cows produce more milk, so they have a higher feed efficiency.
  • Less labour required, because cows do not get sick and there is less young stock to take care of
  • Work pleasure will improve because of working with animals that are not stressed
  • Higher farm income
  • Less antibiotic use will result in healthy food from healthy cows

Download more research and documentation

You can access all of our documentation about Selko protocols, sustainable dairy farming and latest research insights about dairy cow transition management.

Download the presentation with valuable tips from Joep Driesen which was held during the Selko webinar on February 25, 2021.

Register once and download all you need

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