Dry cow feeding

An image of a diary cow condition
A dairy cow with body condition score of 5.5 out of 8

Dry cow management is critical to a cow's performance and health in the next lactation. Metabolic disorders, feed intake after calving, fertility, and milk production and composition are strongly influenced by feeding in the dry period.

Important aspects of the dry period

The main aim of the dry period is to prepare the mammary gland for the next lactation. The ideal length of the dry period is 60 days. The recommended drying off method is to:

  • Stop milking abruptly.
  • Reduce feed intake by 50-70% for 2-3 days to reduce nutrient supply and reduce milk synthesis.
  • Feed to maintain body condition through the dry period after milk synthesis has reduced.
  • Dry cows off in good condition with a body condition score (BCS) of 5 to 5.5 out of 8, and maintain this condition score until calving.

Dry cows should not gain or lose more than 0.50 of a condition score during this period. Fattening cows in the dry period can lead to health problems, including displaced abomasums, udder oedema and ketosis at calving. However, if cows are already overfat at drying off, they should not lose weight during the dry period or they may be subject to fatty liver and ketosis. Feed far-of dry cows (60 to 21 days prior to calving) and close-up springers (21 to 0 days prior to calving) separately, as they require a different ration formulation.

Nutrient recommendations for the dry cow diet

A cows daily intake should be 1.8-2% of the cow's body weight. For example, a 600 kg cow will require 11-12 kg dry matter (DM) per day. A balanced diet helps avoid complications. For example, cows fed a low energy diet tend to have a higher incidence of retained placentas. To maintain a balanced diet for a cow, aim for:

  • neutral detergent fibre (NDF) content of about 40% (80% of the NDF should come from forage)
  • starch content of 2-3%
  • sugar content of 3-4%
  • crude protein content of about 10-13% (heifers will benefit from a higher crude protein diet of 15%).
Table 1. A guide to adequate mineral and vitamin levels for dairy cows
Mineral/Vitamin Adequate level (as % of diet DM)
Calcium 0.44
Phosphorus 0.22*
Magnesium 0.11
Potassium 0.51
Sodium 0.10**

* Low phosphorus intake can increase the risk of milk fever, downer cow syndrome, retained placentas and anoestrus after calving.

** Alternatively, limit salt intake to 30 g/cow/day to minimise oedema (build-up of fluid) in the naval and udder area.

Other important daily minerals:

  • selenium - 0.30 ppm in the total diet to reduce the incidence of retained placenta
  • vitamin E - 1200 IU/day; deficiency can lead to educed disease resistance, increased calving disorder, and potential vitamin deficiency for the newborn calf in the colostrum
  • niacin (vitamin B3) - feeding 3-12 grams daily.

Recommended feeds in the dry ration

  • Base the dry cow ration on forages, including good quality, long-stemmed hay. This will maintain rumen function, rumen muscle tone and aid in healing the rumen wall lining.
  • Ensure the diet is balanced. Keep an eye on excess protein (high nitrogen forages), calcium (lucerne) and potassium (molasses) in the dry cow diet.
  • Minimise concentrate level in the total ration, but use sufficient amounts for adequate energy and protein levels.
  • Do not feed rumen buffers such as sodium bicarbonate as this will increase the sodium content of the diet and increase the risk of milk fever and retained placenta.

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Last updated 06 March 2013