The transition period impacts cow health, fertility and production, therefore, effective and efficient management during this time is key. To do so, Wynnstay dairy specialist David Jones, recommends focussing on four F’s: feet, forage, feed and facilities.
“The dry period is the chance to ‘reset’, and concentrating on the four ‘F’s’ will help prepare the cow for a successful calving and lactation,” explains Mr Jones.
“Cow performance, whether milk yield or future fertility, can be traced back to the management in the 21-day pre and post-calving period. There may feel there’s a lot to cover in this time, however, as a starting point we can focus on four core areas, to maximise health and performance further down the line.”
“We need the cows to be eating as much as possible during the transition period to minimise the difference between energy requirements and supply,” says Mr Jones. “It’s widely understood that lameness significantly impact feed intake, so we need to be monitoring cows before they enter the dry period.
“With lameness, prevention is always better than cure, and for me, we should be targeting zero lameness in our dry cow pens.”
He notes routine mobility scoring and foot trimming during the milking cycle and into the transition phase is key to early detection and prompt treatment of cows scored 1 or above.
Alongside this, he suggests the addition of protected zinc in both milking and dry cow rations.
“Zinc reduces hoof inflammation and therefore the incidences and severity of lameness. Using a performance mineral-like Availa Zn means that the mineral is more available to the animal and therefore has far greater efficacy than a standard inorganic mineral.”
Read more: Lameness in Dairy Herds
Mr Jones reiterates that even for the dry cow group, consistency in forage quality is key.
“Dry cows are often fed differing forage sources, such as maize, whole crop or straw. All of these forages work well, we just need to ensure quality remains consistent throughout the dry period to maintain rumen health and function.
“The aim is to have a diet of around 13-14% protein, and energy density of 9-10 M.E., depending on cow type and feeding system, with as much of this coming from forage as possible. Grass silages that are deliberately made with dry cows in mind can work well.”
Mr Jones says feeding strategies for close-up dry cows, the last three weeks of the dry period, can include grazing standing hay for lower input herds, feeding a total mixed ration for farms with mixer wagon access and offering forage and dry cow nuts where versatility is desirable.
“When feeding a concentrate, look for a highly palatable transition feed which provides high DUP, in the form of either soya or rumen-protected protein. Studies suggest when fed in the close-up phase, this can increase milk production, milk protein and colostrum quality post-calving.
“We also want to improve liver function by clearing fat from the liver, as this plays a key role in all energy-based processes,” he adds. “If the liver isn’t working properly, the risk of ketosis increases. Providing a transition feed that contains rumen-protected choline is a good way to prevent fat build-up in the liver.
“Paying attention to mineral balance in the dry period is crucial,” he adds. “One method of preventing milk fevers is “DCAB feeding” which aims to increase calcium mobilisation from the cows reserves by acidifying the bloodstream using anionic salts, such as magnesium and ammonium chloride.”
The final ‘F’ is facilities, controlling the environment for the cow throughout the transition phase, into calving.
“Comfort is key. We want cows to be either eating, drinking, or lying down and ruminating.
“Physical areas to monitor include space in the pens, water access and feed space. Always plan for the busiest time, prepping pens prior to calving and do a thorough clean between cows to minimise infection risk.
“Cows require around 10cm space for water access and 70cm space for feed,” he adds. “It’s important they always have access to feed to maximise intakes. An element of left-over feed, around 2% waste, can help as it means feed is always available.
He notes monitoring the cow herself is also key to highlighting any environmental issues. “Conducting rumen fill scoring is a good indicator of any early signs of metabolic issues and can show if she’s consuming enough feed. Aim for a rumen fill score of at least 3 throughout the day. If the cow is a score of 2 or below something may be wrong and immediate action is needed.”