Dairy Makes Leaps and Bounds in Productivity

December 31, 2019

Fran Howard

As the U.S. dairy industry becomes more productive, fewer cows have produced much larger quantities of milk. In fact, total output has grown by 40% since 1996 while milk cow numbers have flatlined. Among U.S. agriculture sectors, dairy has been a leader in productivity, but there is still room for further improvement over the next 50 years as dairies become increasingly automated and more dairy producers adopt best practices in genetics, nutrition, cow comfort and handling, and milking.

Bob Yonkers, analyst with the Daily Dairy Report, notes that in 2019 U.S. dairy producers milked, on average, about 9.4 million cows. “That was the same number of cows they milked in 1996, more than two decades earlier. Yet during that same period, total farm milk production grew by 63.6 billion pounds,” Yonkers says. “Research into factors leading to higher milk output per cow consistently points to improved genetics being responsible for a little more than 50% of this growth in recent decades.” And there is still room for growth.

Artificial insemination (AI) technology has been available since the 1930s, but only about 60% of U.S. milk cows were conceived using AI as of 2000, according to work done by dairy scientists at the University of Wisconsin. By comparison about 90% of the milk cows in Western European countries were conceived using AI, he notes. “Since then, however, the combination of higher rates of AI use and increased selection intensity of sires used for AI have increased the role of genetics in higher output per cow,” Yonkers says. Improved nutrition, advances in cow comfort and handling, and reduced incidence of mastitis have also combined to improve production per cow over the past two decades. 

Dairy producers lead major U.S. commodity sectors in productivity. According to Yonkers’ calculations output per cow has increased by 40.9% since 1996, compared to a rise in corn yields per acre over the same period of 38.8%, a soybean yield increase of 34.6%, and wheat yield improvement of 31.1%. “Just like for dairy, genetics and management have played an important role in improved productivity in the crop sectors, but weather introduces significant variability from one year to the next,” he adds. Looking at the livestock and poultry sectors, Yonkers used weight at slaughter to measure productivity growth, and dairy again outpaced these categories over the 22-year period, with hogs, up 11.4%; cattle, up 20.9%; and chickens, up 31%.

In a 2018 Journal of Dairy Science article, several researchers think that over the next five decades, future dairy cows could be gene-based, not breed-based. “The use of gene editing will allow the best genes of each breed to be used in new breeds,” Yonkers explains. “In addition, milk cow genes will be selected for heat tolerance in response to climate change and disease resistance.” 

The researchers also expected dairy farm operations to become more automated through the use of sensors and robotics. “These technologies will more closely monitor animal health as well as water and air quality in cow housing to improve animal welfare,” Yonkers says. 

At the same time dairy cow productivity is expected to increase, world demand for dairy products will also grow. “Greater world population and higher dairy consumption per capita will significantly increase worldwide demand for dairy products over the next 50 years,” Yonkers says. At the same time, concerns over climate change will grow, making it all the more important for dairy operations around the world to become more productive, and the U.S. dairy industry appears to have a head start, he adds.