Don’t treat dry cows like mush­rooms

Irish Examiner - Farming - - DAIRY SECTOR - Brian Reidy

It’s that time of year again when spring calv­ing herds are gear­ing up for calv­ing. The dry pe­riod re­ally must be looked at as more than just a rest pe­riod from milk­ing; proper man­age­ment and nu­tri­tion of the dry cow are crit­i­cal for max­imis­ing dry mat­ter in­take, herd health, re­pro­duc­tive ef­fi­ciency, and milk pro­duc­tion in the sub­se­quent lac­ta­tion.

This pe­riod of prepa­ra­tion for the next lac­ta­tion is a key pe­riod in a dairy cow’s cy­cle. It is re­mark­able that when I dis­cuss the diet of a dry cow with cus­tomers, it is when I re­fer to it as lac­ta­tion prepa­ra­tion that many be­gin to take the strat­egy much more se­ri­ously. Dry cows should not be treated like mush­rooms, is one great say­ing I heard in the past, they shouldn’t be locked in the dark and fed you know what!

The aims of good dry cow man­age­ment (lac­ta­tion prepa­ra­tion pe­riod) strat­egy should in­clude:

Ad­just and main­tain body con­di­tion score (BCS). Ide­ally, dry cows off at the right con­di­tion and main­tain it right through to calv­ing. Re­pair the ru­men wall: any di­ges­tive upsets in the pre­vi­ous lac­ta­tion can im­pair ru­men func­tion, a cor­rect diet dur­ing the dry pe­riod can help to re­pair that.

IICom­plete in­vo­lu­tion of the ud­der af­ter dry­ing off (re­gen­er­ate the mam­mary gland for the next lac­ta­tion). Cor­rect pro­tein sup­ple­men­ta­tion, par­tic­u­larly as cows ap­proach calv­ing, will im­prove colostrum yield and qual­ity. Prime the im­mune sys­tem to min­i­mize dis­ease (a tar­geted min­eral strat­egy with suf­fi­cient Vi­ta­min E and se­le­nium will drive the im­mune sys­tem around the calv­ing event.

En­sure good fer­til­ity rates by pro­mot­ing pro­duc­tion of qual­ity fol­li­cles that will be re­leased dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son. Stim­u­late ap­petite af­ter calv­ing: high fi­bre di­ets in the dry pe­riod will pro­mote in­takes post calv­ing. This will aid milk pro­duc­tion and re­duce body con­di­tion loss in early lac­ta­tion.

Al­low for easy calv­ing and a healthy calf: a well im­ple­mented dry cow diet will keep cows fit rather than fat re­sult­ing in eas­ier calv­ings, in gen­eral.

Min­imise pre-calv­ing and post-calv­ing meta­bolic dis­or­ders: grass silage alone may have nu­tri­ent and min­eral im­bal­ances, caus­ing meta­bolic dis­or­ders around calv­ing and early in the lac­ta­tion. Max­imise milk solids pro­duc­tion in the next lac­ta­tion by main­tain­ing a healthy ru­men. A healthy and hard­work­ing ru­men in the dry pe­riod will en­sure a much smoother tran­si­tion to the lac­tat­ing diet, in­doors or graz­ing.


Cows should be dried off at BCS of 3.0-3.5 and main­tained at this BCS through to calv­ing. Although it has been com­mon prac­tice to feed cows to gain weight dur­ing the dry pe­riod, this can have neg­a­tives. Dry cows only put on fat when fed for con­di­tion, and this fat melts off their back af­ter calv­ing lead­ing to meta­bolic prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly ke­to­sis, and cows los­ing con­di­tion rapidly af­ter calv­ing have lower milk pro­tein and are harder to get back in calf. If cows are thin in late lac­ta­tion, it is best to try and re­gain some of that con­di­tion while the cow is still milk­ing. Con­di­tion score man­age­ment should be an all year­round job, not just at dry­ing off, when it is of­ten too late. Prior to dry­ing off, cows could be eat­ing 3% of their body weight, which falls rapidly to 2% once in the dry pe­riod.

The de­vel­op­ing calf re­quires ad­di­tional nu­tri­ents as the cow moves to com­plete the fi­nal third of preg­nancy. This in­creased de­mand is mod­est, but the in­creased pro­por­tion of the cow’s ab­dom­i­nal cav­ity be­ing oc­cu­pied by the calf has a ma­jor ef­fect on space avail­able for the ru­men and thus on in­take po­ten­tial.

Dry cow feed­ing

Feed­ing straw, if it is avail­able, with re­stricted silage, pro­vides good phys­i­cal fill and helps to con­trol potas­sium lev­els in the diet (2018 first cuts in par­tic­u­lar al­most all seem to be very high in potas­sium). Straw in­takes should be en­cour­aged to re­duce the ra­tion en­ergy den­sity of the diet. Re­mem­ber that silage (68 plus DMD) is too good for dry cows, re­sult­ing in ex­cess body con­di­tion gains. Pre­ci­sion chop silage also pro­vides very lit­tle struc­ture to pro­mote cud chew­ing, as it is of­ten too short. Pro­vi­sion of a small amount of con­cen­trates dur­ing the dry pe­riod will help to pro­mote ru­men bug pop­u­la­tions in prepa­ra­tion for nu­tri­ent rich di­ets in early lac­ta­tion.

Straw’s im­por­tant role

Straw pro­motes good ru­men func­tion which helps to pro­mote ex­tra dry mat­ter in­takes af­ter calv­ing. Straw en­cour­ages ac­tive cud chew­ing, which pro­duces cal­cium for the cow’s bones to metabolise, which im­proves her mus­cle tone.

This cal­cium metabolised by the cow has a role in pre­vent­ing milk fever. Cal­cium should how­ever not be fed in min­er­als or in the diet of dry cows. Pro­vi­sion of straw in the dry pe­riod of­ten helps to di­lute pos­si­ble neg­a­tive ef­fects

It isn’t good prac­tice not to feed dry cows min­er­als, when all the science points to vir­tu­ally all for­ages hav­ing im­bal­ances which can af­fect cow per­for­mance around ”

calv­ing time

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