BACKGROUND: The maintenance of lactation in mammals is the result of a balance between competing signals from mammary development, prolactin signalling and involution pathways. Dairy cattle are an interesting case study to investigate the effect of polymorphisms that affect the function of genes in these pathways. In dairy cattle, lactation yields and milk composition (for example protein percentage and fat percentage) are routinely recorded, and these vary greatly between individuals. In this study, we test 8058 single nucleotide polymorphisms in or close to genes in these pathways for association with milk production traits and determine the proportion of variance explained by each pathway, using data on 16 812 dairy cattle, including Holstein-Friesian and Jersey bulls and cows. RESULTS: Single nucleotide polymorphisms close to genes in the mammary development, prolactin signalling and involution pathways were significantly associated with milk production traits. The involution pathway explained the largest proportion of genetic variation for production traits. The mammary development pathway also explained additional genetic variation for milk volume, fat percentage and protein percentage. CONCLUSIONS: Genetic variants in the involution pathway explained considerably more genetic variation in milk production traits than expected by chance. Many of the associations for single nucleotide polymorphisms in genes in this pathway have not been detected in conventional genome-wide association studies. The pathway approach used here allowed us to identify some novel candidates for further studies that will be aimed at refining the location of associated genomic regions and identifying polymorphisms contributing to variation in lactation volume and milk composition.