Mixing dry and milking cows has real limitations says Dugdale consultant

While mixing close to calving dry cows with the main milking herd does have some good points and remains popular, it does have some real limitations in enabling the cow or heifer to reach its full potential in the run up to and immediate post calving, Dugdale Nutrition dairy consultant, Adam Collantine told the inaugural meeting of the Intelligent Feeding Forum in Garstang, Lancashire

“I think it is fair to say that mixing close dry cows with milkers is the more traditional approach and still popular in a lot of places and does work up to a point. There is nothing vastly wrong with it and may work in many situations.

“However mineralwise it is all wrong. For instance, we give a lot of calcium to milking cows because of milk yields which is not required by dry cows, and can cause a lot of problems. It is very difficult to monitor and maximise their intake when they are in with a larger group of animals eating more than a dry cow will eat – perhaps 50 per cent more.

“There are some good points to it but we are not giving the dry cows the best opportunity in the run up to calving. They may be alright, but we can do a lot more with them.

High straw diets have been pushed by some feeder wagon companies, especially when they have developed a machine that can handle it, and they are partially right.

“I think straw helps give a high volume diet with low energy density but it needs to be managed as part of a complete diet. It must be used in the correct circumstances, perhaps when you have got fiery first cut silage which is not ideal for dry cows, we use straw to increase volume and keep energy down.

“It is really important to get the chop length right. If the straw is wider than the cow’s muzzle she can sort it out. It needs to be no more than 3 inches in length and ideally shorter. These straw chopping guys who go round farms do a great job. If you put a lot of that straw into the diet it just vanishes. It is absolutely perfect.”

Turning to dry cows at grass, Mr Collantine hoped that most farmers had dry cows inside or very close to home. Ideally dry cows should be on long, ‘stemmy’ grass with lots of volume and very little nutrition. The traditional idea of dry cows following milkers round the farm did not work as they were grazing leaf growth on leys.

It used to be said to keep dry cows very tightly on pasture, but this presented the same problems with them often getting some of the best grass on the farm. It was also important to be aware of the weather, minerals if not giving any concentrates, and to monitor body condition score.

Dry cows should be kept separate from the milking herd right up to calving. However the feed requirements of far off calving dry cows and those close to calving meant that where possible there was a case for keeping dry cows in two groups giving the opportunity to fully satisfy all the requirements of both throughout the dry period. Heifers were more prone to milk fever than many people think, and it made sense for them to be managed on similar lines to dry cows in the run up to calving, he said.

Dugdale technical manager, Bill Hardman added that successful dry cow management always came back to attention to detail. Ideally dry cows should be bedded on straw and given as much space as possible and with cubicles only about 80 per cent occupancy. It was important to keep them feeding and to make sure adequate drinking water was always available.

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