Every farmer knows that if you take care of your lactating cows, they more than likely will produce more milk. But what about your dry cows? Dr Joubert Nolte, national technical manager for ruminants at Meadow Feeds, says taking care of your dry cows is vital to avoiding milk production problems.
“[Dry cows] refers to the period when the [cow’s] one lactation stops, and then there’s sort of a resting period, then she [starts] with the next lactation and starts producing milk again. Typically, [the dry period] is about 60 days in length, but there are variants of that time span.”
Nolte tells Food For Mzansi that dairy farmers often try to shorten the dry period, because the longer the cow is dry, the longer the cow goes without generating income. He explains that an extended lactation period means an extended period of profit generation.
“The research shows that, when you go shorter than about 45 days for mature cows, then milk production in the following lactation is negatively impacted. For first lactation cows, they seem to do better at a longer dry period. We try not to keep them dry for shorter than 60 days, but when you go longer than 70 days for any of these cows, milk production in ensuing lactation will be negatively impacted.”
For Nolte, taking proper care of your cows during their dry period is of utmost importance.
He finds that, in his experience, dry cows are often shunted to out of reach corners of the farm and only brought out again when they are lactating.
“That is wrong. Remember that the cow’s lactation actually starts at the beginning of the dry period because that’s the whole preparation period.”
The far-off dry phase
Nolte says there are two parts to the dry period: the far-off dry phase and the close-up dry phase. In the far-off dry phase, cows experience distinct changes that can put their health and future ability to produce milk, at risk.
“Remember, the cow was in the milking parlour. So, she’s been producing 25 or 30, or some cows even [produce] 38, litres of milk per day. And then all of a sudden she’s got to stop that without warning, which is a tough ask. She’s modelled, she eats the proper food, and then tomorrow morning, she is just not coming to the parlour.”
The change over from the parlour, says Nolte, is an uncomfortable and even painful period which they call the “active involution of the mammary gland”. It is during this period, he adds, that the halting of the milk evacuation signals to the cow that she no longer needs to produce.
“But what happens is, although we stop evacuating the milk from the mammary gland, she keeps on producing milk for about four or five days afterwards, [and only] then she gets the signal that the milk is going nowhere and she has to stop producing it.”
Caring correctly for your cow during this period is crucial, says Nolte, as improper care can lead to an unhealthy animal that cannot produce milk. He explains that the cows need to be handled with the same level of hygienic care that they are when they are lactating. In the far-off dry phase, their exposure to unhygienic conditions can put them at risk before their next lactation phase.
“[This phase] holds risk because if she keeps on producing milk and the milk is not evacuated, then pressure in the udder builds up [and] the teat canals dilute. That opens the ideal opportunity for bacteria to enter the mammary gland.”
During this period, the cow’s immune system can be slow to react, allowing the bacteria to cause harm and risking mastitis, which is an inflammation of breast tissue due to infection.
“The [cow’s] natural defence mechanisms against these bacteria are only activated around about day 6 or 7. So that first week after dry off is really a high-risk period for the cow, where ugly bugs can enter into the mammary gland and then cause load of issues for the poor cow.”
The close-up dry phase
This phase starts about three weeks before the cow’s next lactation, says Nolte, where she goes through multiple physiological changes. The cow is pregnant during this phase, so proper nutrition during this phase is extremely important.
“In the last two months of pregnancy, about 70% of the foetal growth takes place, so we have to look after this cow to have a healthy calf. And we want to milk. And if it’s a heifer, we want to milk that heifer two years from now.”
He explains that the cow’s mammary glands start preparing to lactate, and about three days before calving, it produces milk actively.
“So, once again, you sit with this increased pressure because she’s not being milked. She only comes to the parlour after she calved. Once again, [the] potential for bacteria increases because the pressure can push out those keratin plugs before calving.”
The three weeks pre-calving is extremely important as the cow is undergoing many hormonal changes, Nolte explains. These changes, however, lowers the cow’s appetite drastically, and her feed intake can drop by up to 40%.
“That’s the challenge. We are working with a high producing animal that needs to be kept healthy with a strong immune system and now she doesn’t want to eat.”
“She’s been on a lactating diet. Then she went to a high fibre, low density, bulky far-off diet. And now we are transition her again to what we call a steam-up diet.”
Meadow Feeds has developed the Dry Cow Plus 20 especially for the steam-up diet phase. The pre-calving feed is high in protein, calcium, and fibre.
The feed is especially designed to support cows in the close-up dry phase and is in the form of pellets. A serving of between four to five kilos a day, depending on the body mass of your animal, gives your cow exactly what they need during this crucial phase.
“[The steam-up diet] is a sort of intermediate diet, because a couple of days from now, she’s going to be entering the lactation group and then we have to feed her rocket fuel to get maximum milk out of her. And if we don’t transition the digestive system properly, we’re going to have problems shortly after she calved,” adds Nolte.
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