Making sure your cows calve down easily

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Getting the management of the dairy cow right during her dry period is crucially important in terms of easier calving, and also, improving milk yield and fertility during the subsequent lactation.

In fact, the dry cow period should be regarded as the ‘official start’ of every lactation. Getting the management wrong at this stage can lead to many health-related issues including milk fever, ketosis, retained placenta and metritis.

“In order for a high-producing cow to produce to her genetic potential, she must have adequate body stores from which to draw on during early lactation. Ideally, a cow should be calving down at a body condition score (BCS) between 2.75 and 3.25,” explains Alltech’s Richard Dudgeon.

“Cows calving down below a BCS of 2.75 tend to lose a lot of condition post-calving and have poorer conception rates and fertility.”

Dudgeon went on to point out that at dry off, cows should be separated from the lactating herd and ideally grouped into two groups; the far-off group and the close-up group and they should be given plenty of room within the housing that is made available to them.

“Research has shown that a 60-day dry period appears to be the optimal length for dry cows in terms of health, reproduction and milk production,” added Mr Dudgeon.

The nutrition and feeding of the dry cow is probably the most important aspect of pre-calving management. The objective is to provide a feed that meets the cows’ energy, protein and dry matter intake (DMI) requirements for the far-off dry period and the close-up dry period.

Mr Dudgeon explained that the diet can be divided into two components, the forage and the concentrate. The forage should form the basis of the diet with the concentrate portion added to compensate for inadequacies of the forage in order to meet the other nutritional needs of the dry cow. Feeding good quality, long-stemmed silage is ideal for filling the rumen and maintaining proper rumen function. It is important to realise that a cow will consume 12-13 kgs of DMI at dry-off but will only be able to consume 10-11 kgs DMI in the final 21 days before calving due to the increasing size of the calf. Her energy and protein needs also increase in these final 21 days before calving and unless they are met, the cow will go into a negative energy balance.

It’s important to increase the level of concentrates being fed to cows in the final 21 days before calving as it will increase the energy content of the diet and it will help the rumen to adapt to higher concentrate levels that will be fed post-calving.

Mr Dudgeon also points out that it is very important to carry out a mineral analysis on the silage that farmers intend to feed to their dry cows.

“Silages high in potassium and with a high cation/anion balance have been proven to increase the risk of milk fever and other metabolic issues at calving. Forages that received slurry or a lot of potassium from fertilisers are high risk and shouldn’t be fed to dry cows,” continued Mr Dudgeon.

“It’s also very important to feed a well-balanced mineral to dry cows, as deficiencies in Selenium, Vitamin E, Magnesium, Copper and Zinc can weaken the immune system and leave the cow susceptible to metabolic diseases particularly during the stressful calving period.

“Research has proven that feeding these trace minerals in their organic form such as Bioplex® Copper and Zinc and Sel-Plex®, organic form of Selenium, leads to these minerals being better absorbed, stored and utilised by the animal.

“This builds up the cow’s immune system and offers her greater protection from metabolic diseases at this stressful period,” Mr Dudgeon added.