Managing the freshly calved cow

The View from Northern IrelandThe three weeks before, and after calving, are the most critical periods in the production cycle of the modern dairy cow. Negative energy balance is the major issue. Attempting to combat the natural tendency of cows to utilise body reserves or ‘milk off their backs’ to achieve target milk yields until feed intake catches up with energy demand is the challenge facing all producers. Some key management tips are as follows:

•    Maximise dry matter intake (DMI) through good diet formulation and continuous assessment of the ration fed to cows. Also provide a minimum of 600-800 mm feed space and 10 cm water drinker space per cow. This will help improve DMI and reduce stress on freshly calved cows.

•    Introduce concentrates slowly. Adding concentrates too quickly, in an attempt to provide energy, can lead to Sub Acute Rumen Acidosis. Set parlour feeders to slowly build up concentrate levels over a five to 10 day period after calving.

•    With excellent growing and harvesting conditions this year forage quality is generally good. It is important freshly calved cows receive the best silage you have on the farm.

Continual assessment of feed intake and forage quality is critical for the provision of balanced diets. Successful freshly calved cow feeding involves achieving the best possible balance between a number of key nutritional factors. Key areas to monitor include:

1.    Bulk milk tank volumes to determine daily yield.

2.    Feed intake to help assess actual consumption of nutrients.

3.    Body condition score, a good measure of a cow’s energy balance.

4.    Dung consistency – if it is firm and forms mounds this suggests the diet is low in protein or high in fibre. If loose and thin this suggests excess protein or low fibre leading possibly to acidosis.

Forage shortage

If you think you will be short of forage this winter now is the time to act. Early identification of forage shortage is the most important step in ensuring you don’t have a major feed problem later. If you want any help calculating your forage stock contact your local Dairying Development Adviser.

Controlling digital dermatitis

Key points to help you stay on top of lameness include:

  • Prompt identification, examination and treatment.
  • Preventative foot trimming and an effective foot bathing programme.

Remember, the longer the delay before treatment, the poorer the response to treatment. The main objective of a preventative programme is to reduce the number of cows going lame in the first place. Research carried out by Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) on ‘Treatment Strategies for Digital Dermatitis for the UK’ suggests frequent foot bathing with copper sulphate can be very effective – ‘regular foot bathing with copper sulphate, at a minimum concentration of 2 per cent and conducted every fortnight after four consecutive milkings, seems to be an effective control measure under UK conditions and where the prevalence of the disease is relatively low. If the disease is more prevalent (higher than 25 per cent), it is recommended to foot bath with 5 per cent copper sulphate for at least four consecutive milkings each week’

Preventative foot trimming should be carried out by a professional foot trimmer or a trained member of staff. Ideally check the feet of each cow twice a year, once at drying off and then four to six weeks into the lactation.

The correct use of foot baths is important for reducing herd levels of digital dermatitis. All cows, including dry cows and heifers, should be foot bathed regularly and this should form part of the daily routine. Remember the frequency of foot bathing is more important than the chemical used. Provide a foot bath at least 3m long and allow cows to stand on a clean surface after bathing. A minimum depth of 10 cm is required for the foot bath and make the bath solution up fresh, prior to each milking.

By Conail Keown of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

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