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Don’t ignore cow nutrition during dry period

After 10 months on the milk line, dairy cows complete their annual cycle by being dried, put into a designated “dry cow pen,” which may be further broken down into an early dry cow pen and close-up cow group.

While there is a lot of emphasis on close-up cows, healthy faraway dry cows make a significant contribution to the well-being of the whole herd. Rather than be viewed as a period of non-lactation rest, a proper nutrition and management program for faraway dry cows will also help revitalize these hard-working milk producers, and lead to another successful lactation.

During the early part of this “resting” phase, three active things should happen: (1) the dried-down udder goes through a period of involution and its milk secretory cells rejuvenate; (2) the rumen rebounds by regenerating its tissue lining (papillae growth) and muscle tone; and (3) internal organs possibly damaged during lactation, such as the liver, can be repaired. Failure to complete any one of these vital goals during the faraway dry period could compromise good health status and decrease milk production in the following lactation.

60-days common

A 60-day total non-lactation or dry period is still a common practice on most dairy farms and most recommended (i.e.: University of Davis) to allow spent udders to revitalize; 40 days for faraway cows and about 20 pre-lactation days for the close-up animals.

In contrast, some dairy specialists advocate cows really don’t need this entire 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 milking rather than dry them off on a man-made schedule.

A more natural faraway dry cow period might reduce the stress high producing cows tend to experience when they enter a dry cow group such as physical discomfort of being dried-off, a new high forage diet and internal changes to their own internal metabolism. It might also justify the elimination of a designated “faraway” dry cow diet and allows dry cows to adjust to a specialized pre-calving diet in a shorter time-frame.

University research on a shorter dry period for dairy cows has been mixed. Their reports reveal milk producing dairy cows allowed less than 30 “dry” days produce substantial less milk during the next lactation. Some other “modified” dry period trials show no milk loss in mature cows put though a 30-day period, while younger first-lactation cows have consistent reduced milk yields. These researchers speculate this parity difference to dry period length in dairy cows might be due to further mammary development that would occur between first and second lactations.

Proper nutrition

Aside from the duration of a dry cow period, which should include enough faraway dry days, the nutrition of faraway dry cows is still viewed as very important. The National Research Council (NRC) requirements for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins of the faraway dry cow are approximately 80 to 85 per cent of a lactating counterpart cow milking 30 litres during later lactation.

Consequently, a cow taken off the milkline should be brought into the non-lactation period with an optimum body condition score at around 3.0 to 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 is best handled in late lactation, rather than the dry period. Similarly, over-conditioned faraway dry cows should be fed like their optimum BCS pen-mates, which avoids putting them on a “diet” that leads to metabolic problems during early lactation.

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 2.0 per cent or about 11 to 12 kg (23 to 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 good quality long-stem grass hay is the best choice for faraway dry cow rations. It should contain enough energy and protein to meet their essential requirements as well as have enough digestible fibre to keep the cows’ rumen functioning.

If crop residues such as low energy — low protein corn stalks are fed, they should be supplemented with feeds that are nutritionally complimentary; such as adding good quality corn distillers’ grains. Furthermore, some corn or cereal grain (1.0 to 1.5 kilo) might be warranted to help meet with energy requirements. Macro- and trace-minerals should also be balanced in the diet, and adequate levels of vitamins A, D and E should always be fed.

As new dry cows are brought in and put on this new faraway dry cow feeding program, it is also timely to get some other non-nutritional work done such as establish a good dry cow therapy (infused in all udder quarters) in order to eliminate bacterial infections contacted in lactation as well as prevent new infections from occurring. Dry cow time is a good period for hoof trimming, worming and giving pregnancy-safe vaccinations.

Having an encompassing program that meets the special dietary and other non-nutritional needs of the faraway dry cow is just as important as any other program for dairy cows. Its dry length might be shortened for efficiency and economic reasons, but its elimination has been proven to be detrimental to the lactation side of the dairy operation. Providing proper nutrition and management attention to faraway dry cows is a well-spent investment that should pay off with healthy and productive milk cows. †

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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