InTouch: The role of nutrition and management in achieving the perfect dry cow period

By Cathal Cassidy, InTouch feeding specialist

Successful transition from the dry period into lactation is one of the most important moments in a dairy cow’s lactation. It will have a direct impact on milk production, cow health and reproductive performance during the subsequent lactation.

A successful transition can be achieved by getting the management and nutrition of dry cows right.

For spring calving dairy herds, preparation for 2019 lactation starts now. Focus for 150 is a 150-day plan provided by InTouch, Alltech’s nutrition support service.

The plan involves InTouch nutritionists working with the farmer to focus on the crucial 150 days beginning with cows drying off, right though to early lactation and breeding. No matter what stage of the 150-days the cow is at, InTouch focuses on the same four key pillars of body condition, nutrition, minerals and management.

During the dry cow period, these four pillars will prepare farmers for easy, stress-free calving and set their herds up for successful lactation by reducing metabolic issues around calving, including milk fever, retained placenta, displaced abomasum and ketosis.

Each of these problems incurs a financial cost to the farm through treatment, loss in production and fertility. There is also labour required, which is a hard commodity to find in a busy calving period; therefore, getting this 150-day period right can have a huge positive impact.

Body condition score (BCS)

Body condition is a key area to focus on in order to get the dry cow period right. Farmers should aim to calve cows in a body condition score (BCS) of 3–3.25; in other words, “fit, not fat,” as overfed cows are at greater risk of metabolic diseases and assisted calvings.

Overfeeding cows can also lead to a reduction in dry matter intake during early lactation, resulting in a loss of >0.5 BCS, which can negatively impact milk yield and fertility.

Ideally, cows should be in the correct BCS for calving at drying off and should maintain that condition through the dry period, until calving.

As such, it is critical right now to assess the body condition of spring calving cows. There is still time to take action before drying off.

Late lactation cows will put on body condition more easily than dry cows.

Additionally, any extra feeding will result in cows maintaining or increasing milk production with a high solid content, making the extra high-value milk produced an added bonus.

Nutrition

Getting the dry cow diet right is key to maintaining BCS and helps cows hit the ground running in early lactation.

Therefore, the cow’s daily energy intake must be restricted in such a way that the intake supports their energy requirements for maintenance and pregnancy, but does not allow the cow to build body condition.

There are two ways to restrict a cow’s energy intake: by restricting the amount of feed she eats; and by reducing the energy density of her diet.

Restricting a cow’s feed is not advisable; however, as the stress created by doing so could lead to the same problems at calving as those faced by over-conditioned cows.

As such, the most viable option is reducing the energy density of the diet by diluting it through a low-energy feed, such as straw.

Getting silage tested is vital in order to balance and formulate the diet correctly so that it provides the necessary maintained energy level. Monitoring intakes is also required, as doing so will allow you to identify how much cows are actually eating and balance their diet accordingly.

Straw is an ideal balancer, as it dilutes the energy in the diet, but also provides rumen fill, which reduces the cow’s overall dry matter intake. Adding straw to the diet will reduce silage requirements, as 1kg of straw will replace 4–5kg of silage.

When fed ad-lib, cows will eat 50–55kg of silage per day; adding just 3kg of straw can reduce this amount to less than 40kg, equalling over 100t of silage for 100 cows, or about 13ac of silage – saved.

Minerals

Minerals play an important role in a successful dry cow program. The mineral balance of the dry cow diet – especially the calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium levels – will control the incidence of clinical and sub-clinical milk fever and the immune system response.

The trace mineral (i.e. copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) content of the diet is often overlooked, but it plays the equally important role of boosting an animal’s immune system and helping prevent metabolic issues.

Carrying out a silage mineral analysis can help identify the levels of these minerals and determine if the current dry cow mineral program is suitable or not.

It is important to note that the quality of these trace minerals is just as important as the quantity. Antagonists like molybdenum, iron, aluminium and lead can lock up many important trace minerals.

Organic forms of these trace minerals will be better at resisting antagonists and are also more absorbable by animals, meaning they will have a greater impact by boosting the animals’ immunity and reducing issues at calving than minerals in their inorganic form.

When using forage stretchers or alternative feeds, you should seek advice about their suitability for dry cows. Feeds such as soya hulls, beet pulp, lucerne/alfalfa hay or nuts should not be fed to dry cows due to their high calcium content, which can lead to a high incidence of milk fevers.

Management

Dramatic changes to cow feeding or groupings close to the time of calving should be avoided. The stress this can cause may lead to a drop in dry matter intakes and excessive pre-calving negative energy balance, which in turn creates issues at calving and during the early lactation period.

Providing adequate feed (0.75m/cow) and lying space (1 cubical/cow) are also crucial to avoiding stress, and it is vital to ensure that the animals have access to adequate clean water (1 trough/20 cows) at all times.

Feed management and presentation is also important. Fresh, palatable feed, free from mould and heating, should always be available.

Controlled processing and mixing of the diet is critical to proper diet presentation; chopping long fibres to the correct length (4–5cm) and providing a consistent mix will avoid sorting and, thus, promote good rumen health.

Key points:

  • Proper dry cow management is the key to a successful lactation.
  • Check BCS now for spring calving cows; there is still time to act.
  • Maintain a BCS of 3–3.35 from dry off to calving — providing a controlled energy, high-fibre diet is key.
  • Analysis of silage and mineral samples is vital.
  • Check that the mineral program is suitable — not all minerals are the same, and quality is just as important as quantity, so ask your mineral supplier about organic minerals.
  • Minimise stress for dry and transition cows.

The InTouch 150-day plan, a unique program provided by InTouch feeding specialists, is designed and proven to promote easy calvings and reduce metabolic issues while simultaneously increasing the DMI of cows after calving – driving milk production while also keeping the natural loss of body condition post-calving to a minimum, promoting fertility.

Whether you are already a customer or not, please feel free to contact InTouch on: 059-910-1320 to speak to a nutritionist who can answer your questions; or email: [email protected].