RWN Dairy Digest

Feeding Dry and Transition Cows

What is the best way to feed the Dry Cow?

Confused over dry cow management? No one would dispute that feeding and management of dry and transition cows has a critical role to play in producing high milk yields, health and fertility and minimizing metabolic problems during the subsequent lactation, but what is the best system?

The debate goes on. Should you use forage and dry cow minerals, dry cow rolls, a high magnesium molasses lick, a specialist transition supplement or lactation TMR? Or should it be one dry group on straw and lactation TMR? Do you need a separate close-up transition group? Should it be the DCAD (Dietary Cation Anion Difference) approach as opposed to a low calcium high magnesium approach to controlling milk fever?

Feeding dry cows is a complex area. Work closely with an experienced dairy nutrition advisor in order to prevent metabolic disorders, ill health and reduced performanceThere is no right or wrong approach. The truth is there is no 'one fits all solution' to feeding dry cows.

The right solution will depend on individual farm circumstances. Many different systems can work well if applied sensibly and all will fail miserably if done badly.

Feeding dry cows is a complex area. Our recommendation is to discuss the options with a competent nutritionist.


Feeding the Dry and Transition Cow

What are the objectives of feeding during the dry and transition periods?

  • Prepare the cow for lactation and in particular to enable a rapid increase in dry matter intake after calving. High DMI during early lactation will be critical in meeting energy requirements, minimizing body condition lactation, maintaining good fertility and maximizing production during the coming lactation.
  • Avoid calving difficulties and produce a healthy, thriving calf.
  • Calve cows with minimum metabolic problems, including both clinical and sub-clinical milk fever, retained placenta, and without subsequent ketosis, displaced abomasums, lameness, mastitis and somatic cell count problems.
  • Meet the increasing levels of energy and protein and other nutrients required during transition.
  • Feed the cow to encourage healthy development of the rumen wall, papillae and microbial population.
  • Provide the correct balance of magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium and where necessary anionic salts needed to maintain normal blood calcium levels and prevent milk fever.
  • Supply the high level of minerals, vitamins and trace elements needed to avoid deficits at this critical time during transition and at the start of lactation.
  • Build and stimulate the immune system. Deficiencies can severely impair the cow's ability to fight off infection.

Feeding Principles for Dry and Transition Cows

Whilst there are many effective solutions to dry cow feeding some general feeding principles should be considered

General Principles: Diet changes need to be gradual over weeks rather than days in order to allow the rumen and the cow's metabolism to adjust from forage to high levels of concentrates during lactation. As a general rule of thumb, never change energy concentration of the diet by more than 10% at any one time.

Where possible group cows into far-off dry cows, close-up transition cows and post-calving cows before introducing new calvers to the high yield lactation groupWhilst single groups of dry cows can work, where possible grouping cows into far-off dry, transition or close-up cows is beneficial. A separate transition group allows higher concentrate levels to be fed prior to calving along with a variety of other supplements in order to meet requirements more effectively than in a single group system.

It also minimizes the impact of diet changes after calving. Feeding split groups of dry cows is generally cheaper than using a single purchased straw and concentrate TMR throughout. Major advantages can also be gained from giving cows at least 7-10 days to recover from calving in a straw yard, before going onto a full TMR. Remember that up to 50% of mastitis infections originate at calving or in the dry period, hygiene and clean bedding at this time are very important.

Far-Off Dry Cows: Diets should be adjusted 2-3 months before the end of lactation to dry cows off at 3.5 body condition score. The aim in the far off dry period is to feed to maintain this level of condition. Cows will typically consume 12-13kgs dry matter and have a requirement of only around 90MJ energy and 13% crude protein. Hay, straw and low D-Value, stalky forages should be used in order to maintain rumen fill. Tightly stocked dry cows can be very useful to bring down under-grazed pastures more effectively than using a mechanical topper. Wherever possible forage should be low in potassium (less than 1.5%). Avoid young leafy forage that has had recent applications of slurry or potassium fertilizer. Overfeeding will produce fat cows prone to calving difficulty; milk fever, ketosis and reduced dry matter intakes post calving. Severe underfeeding will result in ketosis and fatty liver. Low Calcium, high magnesium minerals containing adequate trace elements and vitamins should be fed at all times. Spoiled, mouldy feeds especially silage shoulder waste should never be fed to dry cows.

Include straw in diets where possible. Introduce concentrate gradually and avoid sudden diet changes. Avoid feeding spoiled and low quality feeds to dry and calving cows.Transition Diets: Nutrient requirements increase rapidly during the weeks prior to calving due to the growth of the calf and to the major physiological changes that occur within the cow during the weeks before and after calving. The weight of the rumen can increase by 50% through transition, with major changes to the rumen wall and papillae and also increased weight of the liver and intestines. Energy and protein demands prior to calving are up to 50% higher than at the start of the dry period. Diets should aim to supply 10-11kgs dry matter, 125 MJ of energy, with 15%-16% crude protein preferably containing a high level of bi-pass protein.

Typically 2-5kgs of concentrate will be needed to meet energy requirements. A range of supplements such as Omega-3 oils, propylene glycol and protected choline can be used. Yeast is particularly beneficial. Comprehensive mineral supplementation containing good levels of magnesium, copper, zinc, selenium, iodine, vitamin D and especially vitamin E is essential. Sodium levels should be low to avoid udder oedema.  Calcium levels are normally kept low but calcium supplementation is needed on DCAD diets. Use only top quality forage, taking care that adequate long fibre is supplied.

Where possible forages should be selected which have not been heavily fertilised and which are as low as possible on potassium. Maintaining a suitable DCAD is essential if milk fever is to be avoided. Feeding high potassium forage will certainly result in milk fever unless the DCAD is corrected using Magnesium Chloride or other anionic salts. The aim being to reduce the DCAD to zero or below. After several days urine pH can be checked and should be 6.5pH-7.0pH. It has been estimated that up to 50% of UK dairy cows suffer from sub-clinical milk fever. Most of these are preventable. Our recommendation is to work closely with your nutritionist.

Dry Cow Supplementation

Effective feed management of dry and transition cows is crucial to herd health, fertility and maintaining high milk yields. Work closely with your nutritionistThere are many solutions to the problems of feeding dry cows. Not all solutions are suitable for every farm. The best option will depend on a wide range of factors including feeding systems, buildings, forages, calving pattern, yield levels etc. At RWN we have built up a range of tried and tested supplements, which are effective across a wide range of farm situations. There are numerous examples of a good transition diet adding 1000 litres to the subsequent lactation. Clinical milk fevers have been estimated to cost well over 200 / case.

Feeding dry cows through transition has a massive effect on herd health, fertility, milk output and overall farm profitability.

It is well worth putting additional investment into improved feeding of dry cows

Our product range includes F1 Trans Omega, Transition Syrup, Pre-Calver Rolls, a wide range of specialist Dry Cow Minerals and Molassed Buckets, Biocell Yeast, Propylene Glycol, F1 OmegaPro X, RWN Optomega-3 and Magnesium Chloride Flakes.

The use of specialist high quality minerals, vitamins and supplements can be very beneficial in preparing the cow for lactationF1 Trans Omega: Trans Omega is a state of the art transition supplement developed over several years, which is fed at 1kg/cow/day for 21 days prior to calving, The product contains a complete package of supplements including high levels of protected undegradable protein, omega-3 oils, propylene glycol, glucose and glucose pre-cursors, protected choline and magnesium chloride together with high levels of minerals, vitamins and protected trace elements.

The various ingredients used in Trans Omega have been demonstrated to markedly reduce, milk fever, metritis, fatty livers, ketosis, displaced abomasoms, mastitis, culling rates, and to increase milk yields, milk proteins and fertility during the subsequent lactation. F1 Trans Omega is a palatable, free flowing meal designed to be fed at 1kg / cow / day for around 21 days pre-calving. F1 Trans Omega is an extremely effective solution to feeding the transition cow.

Transition Syrup: The use of Transition Syrup in free access licks or wheel feeders is a very effective means of supplementing dry cows at grass or on silage. It can be fed throughout the dry period or during the final 3 weeks. Intakes average around 1 - 1.5 litres/cow/day. Transition Syrup is fully mineralised and contains Propylene Glycol and 3% magnesium in the form of magnesium chloride. Simple and easy to use and one of the most effective means of controlling milk fever and retained placenta at grass.

Feed X-Zelit for two weeks before calving. Sub-clinical milk fevers often go un-noticed but can have a major effect on the cows health, fertility and milk outputX-Zelit - a new approach X-Zelit binds calcium from the feed in the gut. This stimulates the cow to produce hormones to ensure effective mobilisation and absorption of calcium from the bodies reserves therebye effectively preventing milk fever. X-Zelit is fed at 0.5kg / cow / day for two weeks prior to calving. X-Zelit has proven highly effective even on farms where potassium levels are high and where other systems of milk fever control have failed. X-Zelit can be used as an addition to normal dry cow feeding programmes and is aimed solely as a prevention of hypocalcaemia at calving. The additional cost of X-Zelit can easily be justified since even in herds with very low levels of milk fever an increase in milk yield of around 1 litre per day throughout lactation has been clearly demonstrated. For more information check this page on feeding calving cows to prevent milk fever.

Calcium Bolus Extra is widely used in the Netherlands and across Europe. The calcium source used is highly available, is absorbed rapidly and has proven very effective at preventing milk feverCalcium Bolus Extra: Sub clinical milk fever or milk fever where no symptoms are seen is thought to affect 30% - 40% of cows in the UK. Sub-clinical milk fever can have a wide ranging effect on the cow resulting in retained cleansings, depressed dry matter intakes, a whole range of metabolic prodlems as well as reduced milk yields and poor fertility. Milk fever is a problem on the majority of farms in the UK even where an effective dry cow feeding programme is followed due to the high levels of potassium found in UK grass based forages.

Routine dosing with calcium of all cows 2nd calvers and above is now highly recommended as a preventative for sub-clinical milk fevers. Boluses offer a much better option than injecting with bottles of calcium borogluconate. Cows should be dosed routinely either within 12 hours pre-calving or at calving. Farmers are telling us that the very successful Calcium Bolus Extra is easy to use and is proving very effective at controlling milk fever. Prevention of milk fever is a much cheaper and more effective option than trying to treat downer cows.

F1 Fresh Start: Most cows at calving suffer from a combination of problems associated with de-hydration, lack of energy and sub-clinical milk fever. It is vital to get liquids into these cows and to get them up and feeding as soon as possible after calving. A post calving drench prepararation is recommended in order to  reinflate the rumen and avoid a displaced abomasum as well as rapidly returning the cow back to full appetite and reduce the risk of milk fever and retained cleansings. Use of this energizing, rehydrating drench or drink has major long term benefits for the cow.

F1 Fresh Start has proven especially beneficial as an effective re-hydration therapy. Major long-term benefits for the cow.F1 Fresh Start is a highly palatable rumen filling drink fed immediately after calving. 1kg of powder fed in 20 - 40 litres of water provides the energy, soluble calcium, phosphorous, live yeast and probiotics, protected choline, calium propionate, vitamins, trace elements, electrolytes and water in order to achieve full and effective re-hydration water needed to achieve rapid re-hydration and return to normal feed intake. This

Farmers using F1 Fresh Start drink report fewer milk fevers, reduced incidence of retained placenta, rapid post-calving recovery, fewer displaced abomasums, fewer metabolic disorders, less ketosis, and improved performance during lactation. We now recommend the use of F1 Fresh Start as routine on all calving cows.

The feeding and management of dry cows is a complex area, which can have a major impact on herd health, performance and profitability.

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