Achieving the perfect dry cow period

Jonathan Knox
Jonathan Knox
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With calving underway in many herds across Northern Ireland, it is critical that this group of cows, on any farm, is prioritised and managed in the best possible way.

This short eight-week period is a “recharge” period for the cow and her only opportunity to recover and build up an immunity reserve for the next lactation.

With potential forage shortages on many farms, and with straw scarce, feeding this group of cows a well-balanced diet will be vital to achieving rewards in the following lactation. Managing and monitoring four basic principles in this system will result in fewer metabolic issues and will reduce the hidden costs that can be associated with poor dry cow management.

Body condition score

Body condition score (BCS) your cows six to eight weeks prior to drying off. Any necessary corrections will need to be done at this time. Dry cows off at BCS 3–3.25. Cows that are overconditioned at calving are four times more likely to have milk fever, with an increased chance of fatty liver, ketosis, difficult calving, retained placenta and displaced abomasum. In addition, these cows will have 30 percent lower feed intake in early lactation, which has been linked to negative energy balance (NEB). There is also evidence of a link between the condition of cows and reduced fertility as well as longer calving intervals.

Diet

The aim is to maintain BCS at 3–3.25 during the dry period. One maintenance diet is required for the full dry period. Long fibre can reduce energy intake, based on silage analysis. With straw becoming very difficult to source, feeding alternatives such as haylage can be a good option. Providing more energy than required before calving promotes fat synthesis, but at the same time, it prepares the cow to mobilize that fat after calving. By controlling the energy density of the diet and dry matter intake (DMI) during the dry period, we reduce the NEB associated with post-calving and see better milk production and fertility in early lactation.

Minerals

Analyse your forage for minerals. Base your mineral specifications on this, and focus not only on the quantity of minerals, but also the source of these minerals. Silage mineral analysis will also allow you to get the balance of macrominerals correct (e.g., calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium). Where silage has high levels of potassium, the use of straw or haylage in the diet can help to control the energy density of the diet and to reduce the potassium load from the silage.

Microminerals, while they can sometimes be forgotten, are very important in the dry period. With many forages showing low levels of zinc, copper and selenium, feeding good sources of organic minerals such as Bioplex® Zinc, Bioplex® Copper and organic selenium in the form of Sel-Plex® can aid the development of a healthy immune system pre- and post-calving, accelerate reproductive function and improve udder health.

Management

Good management during the dry period and leading up to calving will have a significant bearing on stress reduction for the cow. Movement to the calving area should only be done close to calving. Once calved, cows — and especially heifers — need an opportunity to achieve gut fill in a stress-free environment. One cubicle and feed space per cow, as well as having one large water trough with clean water per 20 cows, will allow for good DMI.

In regard to feed management, it needs to be fresh, free from mould, heating and “pushed up” regularly. Where a total mixed ration is involved, it should not be under- or overprocessed; ideally, any long fibre should be 5 centimetres in length.

This is key to avoid sorting or overconsumption of the mix.