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In praise of the “high yielding cow”

Flamenbaum Ph.D.

December 2020


The Israeli dairy cow is known for its high milk yield, despite the fact that milk production in Israel is done in relatively harsh climatic conditions. A cow in Israel yields an average of more than 12,500 kg per year and the yield in the outstanding dairy farm is close to 15,000 kg per year. These achievements were reached by Israeli dairy farmers, as a result of many years of hard working and continuous nutritional and management improvements, including, of course, dealing with the summer heat.

It is clear to every milk producer that it is desirable for him to reach as high a milk yield per cow as possible. However, there are few of them, capable to quantify the economic and environmental implications of achieving high milk yields.

1 The economic benefits of achieving a high yield for a cow.

It is common to think that the higher the milk yield per cow, the lower the feeding expenditure per liter of milk produced. There are expenses that are directly related to each liter of milk produced, and there are expenses that decrease proportionally, with the increase in the milk yield. In this part of the article, I intend to refer only to the feeding expenses, which range from 40% to 60% of the total expenditure per liter of milk. The decrease in cost of feeding a liter of milk with the increase in cow yield raises from the fact that the cost of feeding for body maintenance is the same in cows with low and high yield. Typically, the dairy cow at the height of the milking consumes energy that stands at 4 to 5 “double subsistence” and hence the higher the cow’s yield, the more the cow’s living expenses are “divided” by more liters.

Two surveys were carried out in Israel to study the relation between herd level of milk production and feed consumption (DM per liter of milk produced). The first study was carried out almost 20 years ago and evaluated feed efficiency along 20 years in 40 dairy farms, located in the north of Israel with annual herd productions ranging between 9,000 and 11,000 liters per cow. The second survey was carried out last year, in 90 large-scale dairy farms with annual herd production ranging between 10,000 and 13,500 liters per cow. Feed to milk ratio (kg DM per liter of milk produced), ranged in these surveys between 0.85 and 0.66, in dairy farms averaging between 9,000 and 14,000 liters per cow/year, respectively. In the following figure, the results from the two surveys is presented, when extrapolating data to annual production of 15000 liters per cow.

Figure 1 – Average feed required (Kg DM), to produce 1 liter of milk in herds of annual per cow milk production, ranging between 9,000 and 15,000 liters.

The information presented in the figure served me to calculate the cost of producing typical Israeli farm annual milk quota of 4 million liters, comparing farms with different annual per cow milk production levels, ranging between 10,000 and 14,000 liters per cow.

The average feed cost per kg of dry matter is in these days in Israel of 0.35 USD. Surprisingly, last survey numbers show a negligible difference of 0.02 USD per kg DM, between the lowest and highest producing farms rations, a fact that allowed me to use 0.35 USD per kg DM, when calculation feeding cost in different scenarios of milk production level.

Compared to farms producing 10,000 liters annually, feeding cost to reach farm annual milk quota will be reduced by 55,000 USD and 125,000 USD, when annual milk yield per cow is of 12,000  and 14,000 liters ,  respectively (93% and 87% of the feed costs to reach annual farm milk quota in farms with annual milk yield of 10,000 liters). Reaching annual milk production of 15,000 liters (top producing farm in Israel today), will reduce farm feed expenses to produce farm annual quota by 150,000 USD (84% of feed cost to reach farm milk quota with cows producing 10,000 kg annually).  The economic savings reached by producing farm quota with “15,000 liter cows” means increase farm net income by almost 20%, above basic level. I expect same trend, also in dairy sectors of other countries, reaching today lower milk production averages as described in this article for Israel.

2 The environmental aspect of achieving a high yield for a cow

When discussing the environmental aspects of dairy production, one must take into account the current image of our industry towards the world population, as an “environmental polluter”. Milk production interacts with the environment in two main ways. The first, with the air and the atmosphere above us, through the various greenhouse gases emitted by the cow. The second, with the soil and water below us, through the mineral secretions of the cows.

In this article I have chosen to bring data from two recent studies on this topic published this year (the sources are given at the end of the article).

The first study was published by a team of Italian experts from various disciplines who discussed the various aspects of achieving particularly high milk yields per cow, among them, the release to the air and ground of greenhouse gases and minerals, as a result of the level of production of the cows and the efficiency of milk production. Practically, I chose to bring in this article the environmental aspects of achieving high milk yields per cow in the two main channels. Carbon release to the air (carbon dioxide CO2 and methane CH4 ) on the one hand, and release of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) to soil and water, on the other hand.

In the table below, the release to the environment  of Carbon Nitrogen and phosphorus are presented, for 1990s Italian dairy farms with annual average per cow milk yield of 4,200 kg, these days production (2018 data), where production level was of 7,100 kg. These numbers are compared to expected milk production in 2030. In one case, when the genetic progress of average today Italian cow will remain the same as it is in these days (8,700 kg) and for the same year, when this genetic progress will be calculated for the average production of the cows in the top 100 dairy farms in Italy today (15,000 kg).

% Concentration

(g/kg of milk)

Year / (Annual production)
Carbon footprint
100% 2.1 1990                    (4,200 kg)
69% 1.3 2018                    (7,200 kg)
61% 1.2 2030 *                (8,700 kg)
27% 0.5 2030 **              (15,000 kg)
Nitrogen excretion
100% 21.9 1990                    (4,200 kg)
75% 15.2 2018                    (7,200 kg)
68% 13.7 2030 *                 (8,700 kg)
43% 9.6 2030 **               (15,000 kg)
Phosphorus excretion
100% 3.2 1990                    (4,200 kg)
76% 2.3 2018                    (7,200 kg)
64% 1.9 2030 *                 (8,700 kg)
36% 1.1 2030 **               (15,000 kg)

*   Genetic improvement of actual Italian cows

**  Genetic improvement of cows actual top 100 Italian dairy herds

From the table shown above, a significant positive relation between the decrease in the liberation of greenhouse gases to the environment and minerals to the soil and water, per liter of milk produced and level of annual milk production can be observed. Achieving an annual production level of 15,000 kg per cow have the potential to reduce the release to the environment of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus to less than half the amount released today.

The second study examined the change in the extent of the release of pollutants into the environment by the US dairy sector, over the ten years between 2007 and 2017.

Between those years, the average annual milk yield per cow in the U.S. rose from 8,400 to 9,800 Kg. The concentration of fat in milk increased from 3.55 to 3.90% and the concentration of protein increased from 2.92 to 3.22%, so that in fact, the fat and protein corrected milk yield (FPCM), increased from 8,400 to 10,500 kg (an increase of 25%). In 2017 only 75% of the cows were required to produce the amount of milk produced in 2007, only 83% of the food and 80% of the growing land, and 70% of the water volume, were required to produce this amount of milk. These facts led to a reduction to 80%, the volume of excretions of the cows, 82% of the nitrogen excretion, 86% of phosphorus excretion and 80% of Methane excretion. The total release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2017 was 80% of the volume of their release in 2007.

From the studies and surveys presented in this article one can clearly learn about the economic and environmental benefits, to be reached when obtaining high per cow production levels, and the positive impact they have on the future image of world dairy industry in the public eye.


  • The effects of improved performance in the U.S. dairy cattle industry on environmental impacts between 2007 and 2017.

Journal of Animal Science, 2020, 1–14.


  • How to manage cows yielding 20,000 kg of milk: technical challenges and environmental implications.

Italian Journal of Animal Science.  ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tjas20


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