As a dairy nutritionist I’ve noticed a new trend among dairy farmers in the last few years in feeding and management of their dry cows.
The line between a faraway dry cow and close-up dry cow has faded and producers are feeding much more nutrient-packed rations to them than we used to. I am not saying that this trend is necessarily a bad thing, but I feel faraway dry cows still have their own special nutrient needs compared to close-up dry cows, which should be recognized and managed for optimum milk production later-on in the lactation barn.
I believe that a successful faraway dry cow nutrition and management period parallels four objectives:
- Post-lactation udder goes through a period of rejuvenation,
- Rumen rebounds by repairing tissue lining and muscle tone compromised by consuming high-starch diets,
- Internal organs such as the liver damaged by metabolic digestive problems (ketosis and fatty liver syndrome) is also repaired, and
- Immune function is built back up.
All of this should happen within a 60-day total dry cow period, which is still a common practice; 40 days for faraway cows and about 20 pre-lactation days for the close-up animals.
I realized that some dairy specialists say that dairy lactation cows really don’t need a 60-day dry cow period to prepare for lactation. They point out that many high milk-producing cows produce significant amounts of milk during the latter part of their lactation and it would be of greater economic benefit to allow additional days of lactation rather than dry them off on a man-made schedule.
Aside from the duration of a proper dry cow period, which should include 40 faraway dry days, the nutrition of faraway dry cows is also very important. The National Research Council (NRC) requirements for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins of the faraway dry cow are approximately 80-85 per cent of a lactating cow milking 30 litres during later lactation.
A dairy cow taken off the milk line should be brought into the non-lactation period with an optimum body condition score at around 3.0 -3.5 (1 = thin, and 5 = fat) and fed a well-balanced diet based on a maintenance plane of nutrition. While it seems tempting to build back body condition on thinner dairy cows, this exercise should be handled back in later lactation.
Similarly, over-conditioned faraway dry cows should be fed like their optimum BCS pen-mates, which avoid putting them a “diet” that leads to metabolic problems such as ketosis and fatty liver syndrome during early lactation.
Grassy hay a good choice
With a proper faraway feeding program, it is not particularly difficult to maintain the dry cow body condition of any animal in the dry cow pen. One should target dry matter intake at 1.8 to two per cent or about 11-12 kg (23-25 lbs.) of dry feed based on a forage level of at least 60 per cent of total ration dry matter. Most sound recommendations advise that good quality bulky feed such as long-stem grassy mixed hay is the best choice for faraway dry cow diets. It should contain enough energy and protein to meet their essential NRC requirements as well as have enough digestible fibre to keep the cows’ rumen functioning.
Some research from Penn State (2003) suggests that faraway dry cows fed these traditional high-forage feeds allows the dairy cow’s rumen to lose its capacity to digest and absorb milk-producing nutrients. This is an invisible problem, which makes lactating cows play nutritional “catch-up” when they are put back on the milk-line. Penn State says it might be necessary to look at feeding faraway dry cows in a different way.
These researchers suggest that faraway dry cows should be fed limited amounts of moderate energy forages complimented with non-forage high-fibre feeds such as soy hulls, cottonseed hulls or corn cobs. Known as “one-group dry cow diets,” these diets can be also be dovetailed into the close-up dry cow program, which primes dry cows for lactation. Other similar diets use a combination of corn silage and straw as proposed by the University of Illinois achieve respective nutritional goals.
Aside from the energy and fibre status of these diets, I recommended the entire faraway dry cow diet provide sufficient 14-16 per cent protein (dm, basis), particularly for first lactation cows coming off the milk line. I also advocate a well-balanced mineral-vitamin pack containing a high proportion of chelated/organic copper, zinc and selenium as well as high levels of Vitamin A, D and E. Lastly, 10-20 g per head per day of a commercial cultured yeast should be included.
Meeting such nutritional needs of faraway dry cows doesn’t seem difficult to me. I have seen a lot of different diets put in front of them, given the availability to good-quality forages and other feed ingredients. I have found that the successful programs are the ones that best matched what nutrients and management that any individual faraway group needed in the first place.