What is the best practice advice for drying off cows?

Drying off cows properly at the end of their lactation is a very important process that allows the cow to heal and prepare for her next lactation, according to Teagasc dairy specialist Dr. Tom O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer outlined the correct procedure and best practice to presenter Claire McCormack on the latest episode of FarmLand this evening (Thursday, November 1).

“The drying off process is a very important process that takes place at the end of lactation. It defines the end of the lactation, so it’s a stop point.”

O’Dwyer noted that by drying off their cows, farmers allow the cows’ udders to repair themselves from the ended lactation and to prepare for the next during the recommended 60 days of dry period.

The head of Dairy Knowledge Transfer at Teagasc Moorepark described the best practice guidelines, noting that there are three segments in the process: before the drying off day; the drying off event itself; and then afterwards.

Preparation

“Preparation is key to all three; and hygiene is very important for the second piece particularly, the drying off event itself.”

O’Dwyer said that, ideally, farmers should have milk recorded their cows during the lactation and they should keep information on individual cows to know which cows have been infection within the herd.

“Then they should also be doing a culture – taking a sample of milk from a number of cows and getting that cultured in a laboratory to find out which bugs are actually causing the mastitis infection.”

This, he said, allows farmers to better choose the appropriate antibiotic to use at drying off.

“And also, having got those two pieces of information, they should sit down with their veterinary practitioner and talk about what is the best veterinary product to use at drying off.”

O’Dwyer said that farmers should decide in advance whether they intend using blanket treatment, giving antibiotics to the entire herd, or selective dry cow therapy, where only a portion of high cell count cows and cows with infections are treated.

“On the day itself, hygiene is highly important, and the other thing I’d mention is help.

“There’s a lot of work goes into this, to get it done right, and with larger herd sizes, one farmer taking on to dry off a large number of cows on a morning; there’s a lot of work. So help could be needed. Hygiene is also very important.”

Hygiene

O’Dwyer stressed the importance of good hygiene in the parlour, advising farmers to ideally have their cows’ tails clipped two to three weeks in advance of drying off.

On the day itself, the expert recommended that farmers have the area cleaned off and hosed down and to identify and separate the selected cows during the morning milking.

After getting the equipment to be used ready, farmers should take a short break or get a cup of tea between milking and carrying out the drying off process.

Regarding the process itself, he said it is extremely important that the teat end is clean.

The only way that bacteria can get into the udder is through the teat end and, if the teat end isn’t clean, there’s a risk that you are going to push dirt up in front of the tube when you’re administering the antibiotic into the udder.

O’Dwyer recommended that farmers use a piece of cotton wool dipped in methylated spirits to clean the teat ends for 10 seconds.

Should the cotton wool be dirty after cleaning, the process should be repeated, he added.

“But that’s what we mean by hygiene. It takes cotton wool, methylated spirits – and it takes time.”

Dry off

Approaching dry off, farmers need to identify which cows aren’t milking well, which are near the end of their lactation.

“Our guideline figure within Teagasc is cows milking within 8-10L per day; and once they’re at that sort of a level of milk yield, they’ll dry off more easily than a cow that’s milking 12-15L of milk a day.

“Secondly then, you want to reduce the plain of nutrition for the milking cow in the run-up to the drying off event.

“So, if farmers have got cows on grass, and maybe they’re feeding 3-4 or 5kg of meal with grass; or if they’re indoors and they’re getting meal and silage, drop down the meal feeding levels for the couple of days in the run-up to dry off, and that will lower the milk production level and it’ll make it easier for the cow to dry off.”

Regarding the risks of farmers rushing the job during dry off, O’Dwyer warned that farmers won’t get the sought results.

He highlighted that on some farms there are lower-than-expected cure rates and higher-than-ideal rates of new infection being picked up.

“The risk is that if the job isn’t done right you don’t get the results that can be delivered.”

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