Dry Cow and Transition Diets

The greatest focus on dry cow nutrition is on providing suitable nutrition to provide for the cow's needs in terms of adequate energy and protein requirements for good milk production in the following lactation, but careful nutritional planning at this stage will help to avoid acidosis - which can lead to several mobility issues - as well as implementing good general husbandry to avoid foot problems. Dry cows are all too often a neglected part of the dairy herd; effective dry cow and transition management is essential to achieving optimum animal welfare, high milk yields, good health and fertility.

Above is a video presentation of a Webinar, hosted by DairyCo, by Prof. Nina von Keyserlink (University of British Columbia, Canada)

Good cow comfort levels during the dry period will encourage the cow to have adequate lying time, keeping the pressure off her feet and reducing the risk of foot injury or trauma. Immune levels during the later dry period and pre and post calving become suppressed, making these cows particularly susceptible to infections. Placing the cows outside on good quality pasture is ideal but if this is not possible, well-bedded straw yards are a preferred choice for housing, particularly to limit the formation of sole ulcers; any ulcers that subsequently cause the cow to go lame that developed in the dry period often go unnoticed until two or three months after she has calved, due to the speed at which hoof horn grows. Most dairy mobility problems occur in the first 100 days following calving.

Because pre and post calving the suspensory tissue in cows' feet slackens as hormones released to aid calving have a systemic effect - which can lead to a temporary weakness  in how the pedal bone is supported within the hoof - this becomes a high risk time for cows and heifers as the structural integrity of their hooves may be weakened.

A dry cow that is already lame will not feed properly, risking the well-being and development of the calf, seriously taxing her reserves and limiting her potential to perform well during the consequent lactation. She will also be predisposed to metabolic problems such as milk fever, displaced abomasums or ketosis.

Having two feeding groups of dry cows can help implement transition rations gradually, particularly in higher-yielding herds, to acclimatise cows expected to calve within three weeks to the diet they will receive post-calving and during lactation. Those cows in the first five to six weeks of the dry period can be kept on a ration that provides for their needs and maintains Body Condition Score without over-feeding and encouraging any calving problems.

'Steaming-up' immediately before calving should be avoided as the nutritional shock to the rumen can cause metabolic upsets. Acidosis can be exacerbated during the transition period by poorly-balanced diets containing high levels of concentrates and/or poor levels of fibre. As cows freshen, the transition to a higher concentrate diet must be made gradually, even though the cows are in a negative energy balance.  

The transition period is when the cow is faced with a number of physiological changes, including a large increase in energy requirements as well as the stresses involved with calving and moving into the new social hierarchy of the milking herd.