The price of replacement dairy heifers in Eastern Canada is keeping cull cows on the farm longer, reducing milk production by almost three per cent in Ontario from the same time last year.
But in Alberta, it’s the strong price of cull cows that’s keeping milk production down.
“Cull prices are really, really high,” said Mike Southwood, general manager of Alberta Milk.
“Milk production may be lower because people can get such a good return for cull cows, so they’re just moving them out if they’re at all unhealthy or showing signs of age.”
In December, strong demand for dairy products over the holiday season caused a peak in Alberta milk production. But February production levels dropped almost two per cent from the same time last year and were even lower than in summer, when demand for dairy is traditionally low.
“We’re not outside our provincial flexibility limits, but it has been lower through the winter period than we would like,” said Southwood.
“The cull cow price being strong has definitely kept our production lower than we would normally see it at this time of the year.”
The high price of replacement heifers and the strong market price for cull cows “go hand in hand,” he said.
“Demand for replacements is going up, and at the same time, they get a really good return rate now for cull cows, so they also have an increased demand to replace cows that they’re culling.”
Over the past three years, there’s been a small but steady decline in Alberta’s milk cow numbers — but the industry can afford the small drops, said Southwood.
“If you’re seeing a decline in the total cow numbers on the dairy side, it’s because of genetic improvement and feed efficiency,” he said.
“Through great improvement in the way animals are managed genetically and through nutrition, we’re getting more or equal production out of fewer cows.”
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Last spring was a good example of that, he said.
“At this time last year, we would have just come out of a really high production, where we were bumping up against our upper flexibility.”
Even with the dip in production, there’s no risk that dairy producers won’t be able to meet demand over the next few months.
“We’re seeing a slight swing up again,” said Southwood. “If you’re looking for replacements, it’s a bit of a struggle, but hopefully, within our provincial flexibility and each farmer’s flexibility, they can manage it.”