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Proper feed intake keeps dairy cows milking

Dairy Corner: Good management avoids negative energy balance

Proper ration 
helps dairy cows avoid negative energy balance.

A good dry matter intake or DMI plan is really a foundation of building optimum energy intake by early-lactation dairy cows. This energy drives good milk yield (and milk fat) at peak production and over the rest of their lactation.

Unfortunately, there is a natural lag time between peak milk production and subsequent peak DMI of early lactation cows, which dictates that not all their energy requirements will be obtained from feed. This draws them into a six-week period of “negative energy balance” which forces a natural mobilization and thus breakdown of their body fat, which supplies substantial energy to support milk production.

However, when I go into a dairy barn and see a pen of early-lactation cows that are scoring a body condition score of less than optimum 3.25-3.50 at calving (1 = emaciated and 5 = obese), it has been my experience many of these skinny dairy cows may not complete an entire 305-day lactation and ultimately will stall out. This is due to the early weeks of insufficient dry matter intake, which also magnifies their failure to recover from deep NEB and ends in eventual poor milk production.

To avoid stall-outs I often set up a separate nutrition program that is fed three weeks before cows calve. I have studied several university trials which demonstrate that if close-up dry cows can consume at least 12 kg of feed (DMI basis) at calving, they should have greater DMIs as early-lactation cows and be rewarded with fewer metabolic problems and better milk production.

These close-up dry cow diets need not be complex. They can be as simple as laying down some highly digestible hay mixed with a few kilos of lactation TMR. Nor do early-lactation diets need to be complicated in order to promote dry matter/energy intake.

Diet formulations

Here are a few simple boundaries I follow when formulating early-lactation dairy diets:

  • Good forage base. I formulate diets with good-quality forage such as alfalfa-based and mixed with a little grass-hay. My early-lactation diets contain 19 to 21 per cent ADF, 28 to 32 per cent NDF (75 per cent from effective forage fibre). Limitations are placed upon dietary non-structural carbohydrates of 35 to 42 per cent.
  • Good energy base. I add palatable grains to this forage base such as corn, which has highly digestible starch, yet its rate of energy release is slower than barley. I also limit-feed grains to 7.5 kg in the entire diet, which helps prevent sub-clinical acidosis.
  • Monitor moisture content. I target about a 50 per cent moisture content in the daily TMR to achieve 22-25 kg DMI in early-lactation cows. I also assure a good source of drinking water is available at all times, regardless of the moisture content of the dairy feed.
  • Limit dietary bypass fat. I limit feeding palm fat to 450 g per cow per day. Research shows that there is a decreasing feed intake response in early-lactation cows to elevated blood levels of non-esterified fatty acids, whether it comes from mobilized body fat or palm fat.
  • Add “digestion helpers” to feed. I formulate direct-fed microbials at 10 g into lactation diets. It helps improve feed digestibility of feed and prevent sub-acidosis rumen acidosis, which promotes DMI.

A friend who milks 360 dairy cows also follows these five recommendations when mixing up the early-lactation dairy diets with his new self-loading mixer wagon. It’s a heavy-duty piece of equipment that he keeps in top working order to ensure cows receive a consistent, uniform and nutritious diet each time they’re fed. We’ve calculated his single group of early-lactation cows (40 per cent first-calf heifers) are consuming about 24.3 kg of feed (dm basis) and are peaking at about 48 litres of milk production (3.9 per cent b.f.).

His story is a good testimony that a good DMI feed plan drives good milk production. He is quite modest when you ask him, but he gives every cow the opportunity to take an extra bite of feed that will ultimately end up as milk in the bulk tank and dollars in his pocket.

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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