Transition experts, Premier Nutrition, believe the benefits of two dry cow groups are huge and should be carefully considered, even on smaller farms.  Here they explain why.

Most dry cow management and nutrition is centred on avoiding metabolic problems which, whilst important, is not the main factor to consider, according to Dr Andrew Pine of Premier Nutrition.  In his view, of greater importance is the preparation of the cow for the next lactation and encouraging healthy, economic milk production.

Whilst working with dairies that apply both one and two group systems, the business believes a two group, far-off and close-up system lets cows transition in two phases; the first for all cows to recuperate from the previous lactation while allowing key tissues to repair and regenerate, and the second to prepare for calving and the marathon that is the next lactation. 

Far-off cows

According to Dr Pine, the far-off phase is about keeping cows comfortable in suitably sized groups, allowing them to recover from the previous lactation.  Nutrition can be simple with a ration comprising silage and straw, but he warns not to skimp on a good quality pre-calving mineral.

“During this phase it’s crucial to have a good source of quality vitamins and minerals to help cows repair tissues that have worked hard during the lactation cycle”, he advises. 

“Bear in mind that many cows finish the lactation having had poor vitamin and mineral nutrition, as concentrates are normally eased in this period”.

A 28-day close-up period?

As cows move into the close-up period, focus should switch to encouraging healthy, strong milk output from cows that are also able to meet breeding expectations.

“One key decision is the length of the close-up period”, says Dr Pine.  “The often suggested target is a 21-day period, as this is the minimum duration considered essential to allow nutrition protocols to work.  However, from our TMS data, we have found that whilst many farms target a 21-day period, these cows tend to only achieve an average of between 12-14 days which isn’t long enough.  As a result, our advice is to target a close-up programme of 28 days as this will ensure all cows get at least 21 days on the enhanced close-up nutrition”.

The company is also advising that cow comfort and group/cow movement during the close-up period should be given key consideration.  Once again, their TMS data shows that transition success falls dramatically if lying space falls below 8m2 or there is more than 85% stocking in cubicles.

Dry cow nutrition

The choice of nutrition programme during the close-up phase often centres on what approach to DCAD the farm will apply, ranging from no manipulation, through the ad hoc addition of anionic salt providers such as Magnesium Chloride, partial DCAD with the vital inclusion of calcium through to the application of a full DCAD programme.

“Having a two-group system allows farms and their feed advisor to choose how sophisticated they want to go towards DCAD technology”, Andrew says. 

“However, it’s vital to focus nutrition programmes on preparing cows, with the aim of limiting any body condition changes during this period. Whilst the ‘steaming up’ approach may be considered a thing of the past and a more controlled energy ration is very much in vogue, we can’t forget that this is a preparation phase which must also consider transitioning the rumen to support the cow’s massive increase in nutrient demand during the fresh period”, he warned.

The company’s advice includes ensuring the difference in starch and sugars between dry and fresh cow rations compliment each other whilst other key nutrients help to support the development and function of key organs, such as the udder, liver, immune system and digestive tract. 

“We’ve reviewed a considerable body of research which not only supports the technical merits of using key nutritional technologies such as DCAD during this period, but it also demonstrates the negative impact on the financial value to the producer.  This can be through a reduction in milk production, or effects on cow health and even the lifetime performance of the calf being carried by the cow if these nutrition technologies are ignored”, Andrew adds. 

Key things to focus on include the use of nutrient sources that provide the target level of metabolisable protein, amino acid balance (lysine and methionine), liver function, calcium status and key immune supporting nutrients, for example vitamins and minerals.  If nutrition is compromised, farmers must be willing to add lots of individual vital nutrition components via a TMR which, for many farms, won’t be practical or becomes very expensive when added to the dairy blend, according to the company.

Smaller farms

The close-up period does provide additional challenges with smaller close-up groups and how small TMR rations are going to be appropriately mixed, Dr Pine recognises.  However, he warns strongly about making a larger mix and then feeding this for a two, or even 3-day period.

“Would you want your Sunday lunch plated up with all the meat, veg and gravy and then left out in the kitchen before you were asked to eat it on Monday night?”, he asks.

To avoid this issue, he recommends making a forage mix every day and top dressing an appropriately formulated, purchased transition feed twice per day.

  “Time and again we’ve seen how this strategy avoids wasting expensive feed ingredients and cows get the full nutrient value from the investment – it works!”.

One-group system

For a one-group system, there are a number of practical advantages, notably the ability to mix and feed one ration which certainly helps with smaller farms, regardless of whether cows are managed in two or more different housed groups.  However, Dr Pine warns there are a number of concerns associated with the use of a one-group system.

“Firstly, there’s the cost of transition feeding, especially the use of key targeted nutrients, which are expensive.  Concerns over the application and extent of DCAD in this system is another factor, as well as significant worries around overfeeding cows as one group for the entire period”, he says.

“Often this means farms and nutritionists compromise on key targets during this period, and this is a period when there should be zero compromise”, he concludes.