Number of lactations per cow

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How to reach the optimal number of lactations in a dairy cow

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During the Selko webinar on February 25, 2021, Professor Albert de Vries presented a model that can be used to optimise culling decisions. We should try to rank cows on the basis of future profitability and break the idea that a younger cow should automatically push out an older cow.

Improving transition management creates opportunities to keep cows longer

Cows naturally can survive up to 20 years old, but they almost never get that old. The average productive lifespan is approximately 3 to 4 years in countries with high-producing dairy cows. Dairy farmers continue to cull cows primarily because they fail, for reasons related to poor health, failure to conceive or conformation problems prior to culling[1]. These reasons may indicate reduced welfare leading up to culling. Improvements in health care, housing and nutrition will reduce forced culling related to these welfare reasons. This will create options to keep cows in the herd longer, we can decide how long a cow should stay.

Figure 1. The 5 drivers of total cost of maintaining herd structure: genetic opportunity cost, herd replacement cost, lack of maturity cost, aged cow cost, and calf value opportunity cost. The optimal productive lifespan is the one in which the total cost is the lowest. The optimal productive lifespan is 4 years in this example.

There are opportunity costs associated with keeping cows longer

There are however opportunity costs associated with keeping cows longer which can be included in a model (see figure 1).
This model2 can be used to improve culling decision which would strengthen economically optimal replacement decisions.

The productive lifespan has remained similar in decades, despite large improvements in cow comfort and genetic selection for the ability to avoid culling. On the other hand, genetic progress for economically important traits is accelerating within the last decade, which should slightly shorten the average economically optimal productive lifespan. A major driver of productive lifespan is the availability of replacement heifers that force cows out when they calve. The average productive lifespan could be extended by reducing the supply of dairy heifers, which would also have benefits for environmental sustainability.


Major factors of the relatively short productive lifespan of dairy cows are welfare-related, but other economic factors like supply of heifers, genetic progress and non-optimal decision-making also play important roles.

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.

If we could choose, how long should the average cow remain in the herd? Professor Albert De Vries from the department of Animal sciences, University of Florida elaborates on the cost of herd structure and how more lactations can be achieved by keeping cows healthy.

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