In today’s tough economy, it may be tempting to redirect all of your resources to your lactating cows. Dr Joubert Nolte, technical manager for ruminants at Meadow Feeds, explains why it is important to balance the needs of your animals with that of your pocket.
“As a farmer, you always have to look at cost,” he says during a Farmer’s Inside Track podcast interview. “That’s your mandate to manage your business, but not at the expense of the animals you care for.”
Ensuring the comfort of your cows is therefore of the utmost importance and will be rewarded with the animals performing better during their lactating cycle.
Nolte highlights three aspects of dry cow care that are critical. Without these aspects, he says, cows can end up having problems that will cost you more to rectify.
“In simple terms, when cows are not happy, they will not perform. And that’s probably true for any species. So, when we refer to cow comfort, it is managing the environment where the cow stays so that she is comfortable. She needs to have access to good resting space when she needs to rest, but also access to food, and access to water.”
The importance of a good environment
Vital to good dry cow management is easy to access a clean, adequate water supply, says Nolte. He explains that cows drink a lot of water and that the amount of water they drink, and the quality of that water, is directly linked to their feed intake.
“Make sure that the water is clean, and make sure that there’s enough water. Don’t give your cows warm water. Ensure that the water that flows into the troughs is cool and clean because we know water intake is directly correlated to feed intake. If they don’t drink water, they won’t eat, and the consequences then are obvious.”
Space is another essential commodity cows need ample access to.
Nolte says if too many cows are let into the feeding space at once, some of them simply will not eat.
“Ensure that they have enough of what we call bunk space or feed bunk space. If you push a hundred cows into a ten-metre trough bunk space, they just won’t eat. The dominant cows will eat while the rest of the cows will stand and look at them.”
Nolte points out that often when dairies grow bigger, farmers can be a bit slow with updating their facilities to match their growing herd. Overstocking is easy but will end up disadvantaging your business in the long run.
“When you overstock, the dominant cows will have proper access to the food while the other cows will struggle to get to it. And when they do get to it, the dominant cows have probably selected all the proper nutrients out of it and left the less dominant cows with the inferior stuff.”
Despite farmers attempting to limit cows “sorting” their diets, Nolte explains it is still possible. This possibility makes proper bunk space extra important.
“Remember these diets are not pelleted, so we need that long fibre for rumen health, but they always sort or at least they try their utmost to sort whatever is more palatable, and then the weaker cows in the group will not have access to the proper food.”
An inadequate environment can have far-reaching consequences for a dairy operation, says Nolte. In his experience farmers often move dry cows into uncomfortable environments, that end up having lasting consequences for the farmer’s bottom line. He says these cows are especially vulnerable to heat stress.
“Dry cows are not producing milk, so in many cases when they exit the parlour, they’re not cared for very well and they are put in a pen somewhere. They stand in the sun and it’s hot and it’s uncomfortable for them.”
He explains that the discomfort the cows experience, ends up disrupting their rest habits. They will not want to lie down, and they will not want to eat or drink like they usually do.
He says because these cows are pregnant, the heat stress is then passed on to their calves.
“Recently, a lot of research has been conducted in this field, and we’ve seen that dry cows that are subjected to heat stress not only produce less milk in the ensuing lactation, but they also have in utero heat stress that impacts the production of their calves.”
The research, he says, shows that heat stress affects the female offspring of the cows and how those offspring produce milk and stand up to external elements.
“If they have heifer calves that come into lactation two years from the date when they’re born. They will also produce less milk and have a weaker immune system because that heat stress impacts on the exchange of nutrients and oxygen across the placenta.”
In other words, ensuring that your dry cows are kept comfortable during their pregnancies, means that the calves they produce will be born stronger with higher milk production.
“So [it is] very important to not forget about them, but [to] look after them very well. They are late pregnant and the way you treat them in this dry period will have an impact on how those cows perform in the ensuing lactation. But also, what the female progeny will do in their lifetime production.”
Balancing nutrients with cost
Nolte says managing the dry cow’s intestinal tract correctly is a sure way to repair any damage she incurred during the previous lactation cycle. He explains that how the cow’s fibre is managed, is particularly important.
“We have 60 days where you could feed the cow a lower density diet so that possible damage that she incurred during the previous lactation can be repaired in the digestive tract. Then you also focus not only fibre [levels] but the different components of fibre.”
He says farmers need to ensure their cows ingest both acid detergent fibre (ADF) and neutral detergent fibre (NDF). The levels of ADF and NDF are critical because they impact animal productivity and digestion.
“[We need to] get enough of [fibre] into the cow so that the rumen can work and repair muscle tone.”
Fibre makes up a large percentage of Dry Cow Plus 20, the feed that Meadow Feeds developed especially for cows in their dry phases. The feed is in pellet form and contains a high amount of protein and moisture as well. It is specially designed for close-up dry cows and even helps your dry cows fight off milk fever.
Nolte highlights that since dry cows are not producing milk, the expense of their care and feed is not offset by any income. He explains that margins are thin in the dairy business these days, which is why farmers are trying to feed their dry cows as cheaply as possible.
“But we can’t feed them an inferior diet. When you increase the bulkiness of the diet, you still have to focus on palatability, so that you ensure you achieve dry matter intake targets.”
Dry matter intake is important, says Nolte, because the cow’s intake during their dry phases is directly correlated to their intake when they are lactating.
“Post calving, it’s important to keep in mind that if she eats better and she eats more, she’ll produce more milk. Because of that correlation, we focus on balancing all the nutrients with costs and achieving the primary intake targets.”
Ultimately, explains Nolte, dry cow care is predicated on what farmers have available. He says cost is always something dairy farmers have to consider, but it needs to be done in a way that ensures that dry cows get the nutrients and care they need.
“We try to work with what is readily available in a certain area because of cost. We have to be wary of cost always, but we have to do what is right for the cow because this is the preparation for the next lactation.”
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