Here at the Bob-White Systems research micro-dairy in Royalton, Vermont, I’m often asked this simple question: Is it better to over-milk or under-milk a cow? Truth be told, this is a far from simple question and the answer depends completely on your priorities as a dairy farmer and even, to a certain degree, your politics.
Some dairy industry background
In the U.S., the goal of the "Dairy Industry" is to keep milk a cheap and plentiful manufacturing input so that milk and dairy products can be sold relatively inexpensively to urban constituencies—the old "cheap food" policy. That means all of the dairy management practices promoted by the industry are designed to make milk production on dairy farms fast and efficient at the expense of everything else, including the health of the cows.
The Land Grant College Extension Services, the state Departments of Agriculture and the USDA will trip all over themselves developing dairy farm management practices that will LOWER milk production costs. But, conversely, those same organizations will rarely ever do anything to encourage higher farm-gate milk prices so dairy farmers can make money.
In fact, I recently read that in order for a modern dairy farm to be considered efficient it should produce 1.6 million pounds of milk per year for every paid laborer on that farm. Imagine that. Obviously this doesn't leave much time for cows to receive any one-on-one attention from humans. And the results are evident: The average life of a commercial dairy cow is approximately 4.5 years. Call it being milked to death.
The milking process
What this all means is that modern commercial dairy farms simply don't have the time to "over-milk" cows and waste efficiencies, regardless of what’s best for the cows. Most commercial dairy farms have automated systems that automatically take the milking unit off a cow when the flow rate goes below a certain level, whether the cow is fully milked out in all four quarters or not. Again, time and efficiency are more important than the health of the cow.
The “milk industry” encourages commercial farmers not to worry about a little milk that may be left in a cow’s udder after she is milked and are told "you'll get it from her the next milking". The folks who milk the cows are discouraged from touching the milker after it has been placed on the cow. The lore is that the cow will get used to the milking system and gradually adapt so that all four quarters will milk out smoothly and evenly as long as it’s done the same way every time.
I haven't found that to be the case. True, you want to avoid touching the cow’s udder after the milking machine has been placed on it and you especially don't want to knead the udder to get more milk out. But the gentle application of down pressure on the machine for a few seconds to elongate the udder doesn't hurt the cow, and as long as the vacuum level at the teat end is properly set and the cow is not experiencing any discomfort, leave the machine on until all four quarters have been milked out. Don’t fuss with it unless, of course, the cow's udder is injured (that's another story entirely).
Why milk out? Because leftover milk in a cow’s udder is a perfect medium for bacteria growth. The old treatment for mastitis is milking the infected cow dry several times per day so the infection has nothing in which to grow. Obviously, taking the time to get the milk out of a cow’s udder is better for the cow than leaving some behind.
Healthy cows are more efficient
After milking cows at the Bob-White System's research micro-dairy in Royalton, Vermont for more than eight years, we have not had one case of mastitis. The average age of our cows is 6 years and our oldest cow is 14 and still going strong.
If the “milk industry” really wants to promote efficiency, consider if commercial dairy farmers were encouraged to adopt management practices designed to increase the average life of their cows to say six years; they would then have 1.5 more years to recover their per-cow investment. If the average life of a cow on a commercial dairy was extended to 7 or even 8 years, the per-cow ROI would increase dramatically.
So to answer the question of whether to over-milk or under-milk: Relax, make sure your vacuum levels are correct and the cows are comfortable and give them time to milk out.
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