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Dry cows: Don’t forget them

Steven Massie Published on 31 December 2012

0113ca massie 1It never ceases to amaze me how some dairy farmers treat their dry cows.

I mean, they build these incredible palaces to house their milk cows, feed these cows diets balanced to the fourth decimal point and worry and fret on how they are performing.

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But dry cows are second-class citizens on many farms: stuck in sub-par facilities, overcrowded and fed rations that are neither balanced nor high-quality.

I cannot blame the farmer entirely. I had an ag lender tell me one time that if it had not been for the dry cows, the operation would have a better cash flow.

Hello – since when did dry cows add to the cash flow on any dairy farm? I am dumbfounded by the number of farms I get called in to that are having major trouble, only to find the dry cow diet balanced on a corn silage or hay sample that has not been on the farm for a couple of years.

Some nutritionists are also saying the dry cows are not that important. I have read and heard from several sources that 85 percent of today’s dairy farm profit is in the first 150 days of lactation. Makes sense.

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In the first 150 days she has to freshen well, have good startup milk, peak and become pregnant. Based on these parameters, I think you would agree with me – the dry cows are the most important group of cows on the farm.

I prefer drylots and pack barns for dry cows. I love walking in and seeing a group of dry cows all stretched out on their sides or curled up sleeping in that classic position.

Dry cows seem to spend more time with their front feet forward than their milking counterparts. They are carrying an extra couple of hundred of pounds around. For these reasons, I do not like freestalls.

Freestalls can work but they need to be at least 50 inches wide and 110 to 120 inches long (70 inches stall-bed length) with a very low brisket board (max five inches) that allows the cow to easily extend her front legs over it.

I also like the style where the stall rows are tail to tail so anyone walking the barn can easily see the working end of a dry cow. I want her to be as comfortable as possible.

Overcrowding is a silent killer in any facility. In freestalls, the rule of thumb is not more than 80 percent capacity of either the freestalls or bunk space. Dry cows need 30 inches of bunk space to eat and at least two inches of linear water space per cow.

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In drylots or pack barns, the rule of thumb is 125 square feet of bedding space per cow. Compromise any of these requirements and you will likely see an increase in ketosis, milk fevers, retained placentas and/or rumen upsets.

Cow behaviour for the last few thousand years has been to wander off by herself to calve so that the blood and fetal fluids do not attract predators to the herd. If she is overcrowded, she cannot get away and she becomes stressed because she is putting the herd at risk in her mind.

This causes the stress hormone, cortisol, to build – which might interfere with normal biochemical processes and increase the risk of early calving. Give your dry cows a head start; do not overcrowd them!

Cooling dry cows is the new wave. Ongoing work at the University of Missouri is showing large increases in startup milk from healthier cows, which positively impacts peak milk when dry cows are subjected to effective heat abatement methods.

I have had several producers this summer that have added fans to the dry cow pens or are bringing the dry cows into the holding pen where we can soak them and blow air across them.

Some are doing this daily, others only when it is hot, but most are following Missouri’s plan of three times per week. The results in all cases have been positive with 1.3 or 1.8 kilograms more milk at peak this summer as compared to last summer.

I know this is rough science but I really like the trend I am seeing. This year, Missouri is finishing up their controlled, scientific studies that will likely yield statistically significant results but, for this field nutritionist, I am seeing that cooling dry cows pays and pays big.

The ration is another area where dry cows sometimes get abused. Feed refusals from milk cows get fed to dry cows way too often.

This makes absolutely no sense to me. First, consider the economics. Your milk cow ration is currently costing you about $0.06 per kg of dry matter. Your dry cow ration is costing you about $0.04. So farmers are pulling out $0.04 to put in $0.06, unless refusals are valued lower due to poor quality.

That is only $0.02 per head per day, but on a 50-cow dairy that is $365 per year profit. Second is: Nutritionally, the waste feed is not the best quality – and you want to feed that to the most important group of cows on the farm? Nutritionally, it is a poor choice.

Let’s run the numbers on salt. Suppose your milk cow TMR is based on 23.5 kgs of dry matter intake and is providing 113 grams of salt (NaCl) or 0.48 percent.

If you feed 4.5 kgs (as fed) of waste feed to your dry cows, you are adding 23 grams of salt to your dry cow program. Additional from any added mineral sources could potentially be excessive. You most likely have sodium bicarbonate in your milk cow TMR too, so you are adding even more Na to your dry cow diet.

Any added Na from sodium bicarbonate increases the DCAD value of the dry cow TMR and, if it gets high enough, it can cause milk fevers or at least subclinical milk fevers. I see way too many dairies feeding expensive additives to lower the DCAD value to prevent these subclinical milk fevers.

So you spent an extra $0.02 per kg of DM on the feed and then had to spend more money to fix the problem you created by feeding the milk cow TMR in the first place. Feed the waste feed to the low cows; save your dry cows.

Today’s dry cow rations are being balanced on metabolizable protein (MP) and not crude protein, just like the modern lactating cow. Metabolizable protein is the combination of digested rumen- undegradable protein (bypass protein) and microbial protein.

Feeding high-quality forage and rumenally available carbohydrates to dry cows promotes microbial protein production (a very high-quality protein) and allows for less crude protein to be fed, saving feed cost. Balancing for amino acids further reduces crude protein in the diet and minimizes excess nitrogen being wasted.

Any excess nitrogen must be excreted in the urine and this process is biochemically expensive energy-wise. If this energy cost is high enough, it can potentially contribute to condition loss during the dry period, which usually ends badly with liver problems at freshening. Balancing dry cow diets for metabolizable protein and amino acids may not only save you money but should also result in healthier fresh cows.  PD

Steve Massie

Steve Massie
Western Field Nutritionist
Renaissance Nutrition, Inc.

 

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