Monitoring Body Condition Score – the key to effective dry cow management

Controlling dairy cows’ Body Condition Score (BCS) is a crucial management requirement in the run-up to calving, according to Kiernan Milling’s Emmet Duffy

Courteys of his presentation to a recent farmers’ meeting in Granard, the company’s dairy advsor highlighted the specific challenges facing milk producers with dry cows and how they can be best managed so as to ensure they have a trouble-free calving

“The dry cow period is that time of the year when many of the key health and production related the problems will arise. These include difficult calvings plus the host of metabolic disorders that can arise post calving,” he said.

“Minimising the negative energy balance that impacts on all cows directly after calving is a crucially important target for dairy farmers wishing to get cows adhering as closely as possible to a 365 day calving cycle. And again, meeting this requirement has important implications for the management of cows during the dry period”

Emmet went on to point out that forward planning is essential in determining when to dry off cows.

“Step One, the process is the change to once – a day milking. As cows come to the end of their lactation, protein levels in the diet should be reduced. This process should take place in tandem with the increased inclusion of long fibre forages in the diet, including hay and straw. This will help reduce milk output by almost 70%. The use an injectable antibiotic is advised at drying off.”

Emmet also confirmed  that cows should be body condition scored throughout the latter weeks of their lactation. A body condition score of 3.0 is ideal. Recent surveys of dairy farms would indicate that most cows I the country have a body condition score ranging from 2.0 to 3.2

“Hoof condition must also be assessed at drying off with all problems treated. This will entail the use of foot trimming and regular foot bathing. Once housed, cows must have access to lying space, an adequate water supply and an environment must be clean and dry”.

Commenting on the nutritional requirements of the dry cow, Emmet stressed the importance of dividing the dry cow’s period into far-off and close up periods.

“But the driver throughout is to ensure that cows retain optimal levels of body condition, so as to minimise the level of weight loss post calving.”

The Kiernan Milling representative repeatedly stressed the importance of not feeding dry cows that are high in potash.

“This will predispose cows to Milk Fever post calving. It is now strongly recommended that cows should be offered low potash forages such as straw and baled silage that did not received dressings of slurry or a compound fertiliser prior to ensiling.

“In cases where this approach cannot be taken Magnesium Chloride should be added to the diet.”

Emmet also confirmed the importance of ensuring that dry cows receive their full complement of minerals, including Copper, Zinc and Selenium

“These are best offered in a chelated form,” he commented,

Veterinary surgeon Frank Clerkin told the meeting that maintaining Body Condition Score at required levels was the key driver in terms of managing cows successfully during the dry period.

“Most culling decisions on a dairy can be traced back to the cow’s previous dry period and how she was managed during that period,” he commented.

“The good news is that cows are in good condition this year. But the reality is that the genetic make-up of the national herd is changing. The potential for the modern dairy cows to produce significantly more milk than her predecessors is significant.

“And she will milk off her back in the weeks post calving. However, this predisposes the animal to a host of metabolic disorders including ketosis.

The final speaker of the evening was Agriland journalist and dairy farmer Richard Halleron. He explained that one of the strategic decisions taken on the farm was that of producing a bespoke dry cow silage. This was achieved by baling fields on the farm that had been ear marked for re-seeding in August.

“These areas do not receive any fertiliser at all,” he commented. “And the grass is bald when well headed. By taking this approach we have found that the number of problems with the likes of milk fever has been reduced significantly,”

Commenting on the general prospects for dairy farming Richard said that he remained extremely upbeat for the future. “But the first six months of 2015 will be extremely challenging on the back of milk low prices and the prospect of large super levy bills,” he commented.

“Given these circumstances, there is an immediate need for the European Commission to significantly the dairy intervention price to realistic levels.”

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