Saturday, December 23, 2023

From the comments on "Sig's Christmas Letter" post


Those cull dairy cows have been eating lots of grain and alfalfa hay all their lives, will probably not do well on rough pasture and three year old, outdoor stored grass hay, unless she has found them at a pasture based dairy. Preferably, they should be al;most any breed of cow other than the standard holstien cow found in 90% or more of commercial dairys. 

Some people like detail. This post is for you.

For the person who wrote this comment (Howard, was that you?), thank-you.

The standard Dairy Holstein

That standard Holstein is a cow that is biologically programmed to produce about 22,000 pounds of milk per year of approximately 3.5% milk-fat, protein and lactose. That is almost 800 pounds of fat, protein and lactose (carbs) each. That works out to an average of 17,000 calories a day, net.

At a minimum, she will need 40 pounds of very high-quality feed every day. That includes grain (called "concentrate" in the business), alfalfa hay and perhaps some corn silage.

Cows have a very funny metabolism. Most of their "energy" is derived from the short-fatty-acids that are generated by the fermentation process in their rumens. A cow with a healthy rumen has a distinctive odor from the volatile 2, 3 and 4 carbon-chain fatty-acids. That enormous rumen's fermentation process is why cows can digest fiber (cellulose) and lacking that rumen, humans cannot. Those short, fatty acids drive the tissue that creates butter-fat in the milk.

Even when a cow is very well fed, it loses body-weight early in its lactation when it is producing the most milk. In the normal course of things she gains that weight back in late-lactation and in the two (or so) months before she calves again when she is not producing milk

It is fair to characterize the nutrition of top-producing dairy cows as being like flying a very fast plane very close to the ground. Things can go south in a hurry and there is little margin to respond.

Throw that cow into an austere environment like Copperhead Cove and feed them junk-hay and you will have a big problem on your hands.

About that 22,000 pounds of milk per year...

Bill Bivens was our county agent some twenty-five years ago. He commented that he had never worked in a county where every registered dairy-herd was not above average. (Sounds a little bit like the children in Lake Woebegon, Minnesota)

Knowing a little bit about statistics, I asked him how that was possible.

He explained that dairy farmers work hard and are proud people. Nobody wants to be below average or to get mocked for having a herd that produced less than 22k pounds per head per year.

The obvious solution is to split the herd into two separate herds. They high performers go into the registered herd whose results get closely measured and published. The lower producing cows go into the un-registered herd. When a cow in the un-registered herd shows potential, she knocks a marginal producer in the registered herd off the end-of-the-bench and the marginal producer goes back into the un-registered herd.

There are good management reasons for doing that. The higher producers need larger amounts of feed. They need higher quality feed. They might get milked three-times-per day while the lower producers get milked twice-a-day.

So if the registered, high-producing herd is making 22k-to-23k pounds of milk per cow then the off-the-books herd is probably making at least 10% less that that and the bottom end of the off-the-books herd is probably making a lot less than that.

Reasons cows stop producing

Sometimes she is just old.

Sometimes it is because she lost one-quarter of her udder to mastitis.

Sometimes she has foot-issues.

Sometimes it is because she is getting bullied by the other cows.

Sometimes she is culled because she took too long to get pregnant which means she will be "dry" for more that two months resulting in her being a drag on the profits.


If you had fabulous rapport with the dairy-farmer, he could earmark some soon-to-be-culled cows that he thinks would survive on your crappy hay...maybe the one missing a quarter of her udder and the one who was bullied or the one that was slow to get pregnant.

He could have those artificially inseminated with a dual-purpose breed like Milking Shorthorn or Simmental  or a Jersey bloodline proven to do well on pasture.  Any one of those crosses would be better suited to Copperhead Cove than the standard issue Holstein. Every one of those crosses should show some out-breeding vigor. Virtually any beef breed could be used as long as the teet-size conforms to the milking machine or hand-size of the milker.

Plausible production numbers in Copperhead Cove

In my stories, I figure Sarah-and-company will be lucky to average 12,000 pounds of milk per year per cow. They are feeding no "concentrate" and the dominant grass species is likely to be Tall Fescue. Furthermore, the low pH of their leached soils means legumes like white clover and red clover will struggle and alfalfa is pretty much a non-starter.

On the flip-side, the high percentage of forage means the milk will probably have more than 3.5% fat.

That is still an average of 8000 calories per day of high-quality food for humans.


  1. I know people with a goat dairy. They used to milk (and feed) over 100 goats - they realized they got 80% of their milk from 15 animals, so they selectively bred and reduced the herd to under 20 while producing almost as much milk .

  2. Same thing with serious gardeners (like Thomas Jefferson) that vegetables that do very well and taste great are not gobbled up but kept for seed for next generation.

    Same amount of time and effort to water, fertilize and weed poor grade plants (fencing and feeding for critters) as excellent ones.

  3. Putting some cows on the pasture area will improve it over time as will putting hay bales out. I make an assumption that the bales are something along the lines of 1000lbs, most of the hay will still be pretty good stuff and the outer layers make good material for the pasture. Sheep are less good for the pasture as they tend to pull roots up but the waste is good for the overall soil health. Chickens free ranging in the pasture is an excellent way to speed the process with all the scratching they do, eating bugs and digging parasites out of the dung and spreading it around.

    1. Putting the chickens up in a coop at night will reduce the amount of predation.

  4. In the PNW, more like 28,000 & 4% bf. Yes, the concentrates allow it to happen. About 54-56 pounds of dry matter intake. Registered is not very common. Most farms would have meters & so monthly "official" test also not happening any more. One robot milked cow milked 5 times in 24 hours giving 204 pounds.

  5. Back when the kids were little I almost bought a Red Devon Milking Short Horn. There was a farm down the road a ways that bred and sold them. I really enjoyed the multipurpose usefulness of the breed amongst other attributes.

  6. Thanks for the info and commentary.
    I would like a mini diary cow, simpler to feed and I can only use so much milk.

  7. The calves resulting from crosses of HO x Milking Shorthorn or HO x Fleckvieh(Simmental), or even a HoJo(HOxJersey) will likely stand up better to a 'grass-based' dairying situation that a straight Holstein.
    Goats... can be milked for years without having to be re-bred to 'freshen'.

    1. The future they face is likely to fork. One fork is a return to normalcy in a few months to a few years. The calves will likely not be old enough to have a material impact on the (temporary) doubling of the population of Copperhead Cove. The young families will move back to Cincinnati and Atlanta and Charlotte and Memphis and restart their old lives.

      The other branch is the economy going full Zimbabwe and a multi-decade zhit-storm. In that case having a healthy herd of milk animals that are tuned-in to the pasture resources will save lives over the course of those decades.

      If Zim is an unpalatable example, consider Ireland after 1849. At least the Irish had places they could emigrate to and escape the famine. Not sure there will be any better places that will take us if the US goes Tango-Uniform.

    2. Pretty sure a) there are NO places to go that are remotely comparable and b) Full-on Zimbabwe is likely. The advantage we have is that we won't kill-off our "White farmers" as easily/completely as happened in Rhodesia.
      Boat Guy

    3. "The advantage we have is that we won't kill-off our "White farmers" as easily/completely as happened in Rhodesia."

      Maybe, maybe not. When food starts running short everyone with a D after their name - and the media - will blame The White Guys Out In The Country, and the mob will follow.

    4. Urban exfiltration will most likely be met with a lot of gunfire.

  8. As always, thanks ERJ for a well researched (and well rounded) discussion.

    To your point, 8,000 calories a day can make quite a difference depending on your circumstances.

  9. Small dairy cows ie jersey etc, produce high fat milk on less than ideal pasture. With a little supplement of high calorie feed their milk can be near twice the fat of Holstein. For the situation of the story high volume milk is not the goal.

  10. It's always in the details, and good explanation!

  11. The dairy business is complex. And dairy cattle are picky compared to beef cattle. Probably why we don't see a lot of dairies in non first world countries. Goats are the milk producers of choice in simpler less developed regions. They are hardier and less picky. They just don't produce the volume cattle can.

  12. The comment was not mine but I agree. Back when I worked a dairy in the N.Y. Catskills we bred as many cows as possible for late summer so production would peak in early fall when prices were highest. Since many of our meadows were grass we often strip grazed the “after feed” second growth after taking the first cutting as hay by the fresh cows and put the dry cows on the rough pasture supplemented as necessary! In one article in the leading dairy magazine of the day a commenter said an Ayrshire would put milk in the pail on pasture where a Holstein would starve to death. From what I have seen you might find a retiring Jersey more easily than the other brown breeds because that seems to be the most popular commercial option to Holsteins. I never milked goats but I understand that goats will browse brush on really rough pasture. Also it is harder to keep them in a fence than cattle but could be tethered. I also understand that you need a cream separator to extract butter from goats milk.

  13. I wonder if fruits with a high butyric acid content might serve as 'concentrate' for dairy cattle. Eaton Rapids Joe has earlier mentioned high brush cranberry, and I have had personal olfactory experience with ginkgos, which locally are called 'vomit trees' because of how strong the smell of the butyric acid coming off the berries is.

  14. I am the commenter to that original post, and Yes , I am into the details, especially about the way they are farming in this story. I'm in the Missouri Ozarks, probably similar to the land in the Copperhead Cove story. Thin soil, lots of rocks. It's beef cow country, not much row crops around here. There used to be several small family dairies in my area, but all are gone now. They were similar to what Howard described, with the cows on pasture every day. Cows from a dairy like this might be able to adapt to the lower inputs in the story.


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