Effective Close-up Dry Cow Management

Dr. Ronald L Boman
USU Extension Dairy Specialist

I�m still being contacted by dairy producers who are having excessive downer-cow and other nutrition-and management-related problems at or around the time of calving. We wouldn�t think of competing in a Triathlon or a Marathon ourselves without altering our nutrient and water intake prior to the event. It wouldn�t take long for our body to become totally drained if we didn�t. We need to be aware that in many respects cows participate in their own version of a Triathlon or a Marathon each time they calve, and they seldom have the ability to control their own destiny. There are at least three major events occurring just prior to and at calving that cause a 3X increased demand for glucose, a 2X increased demand for amino acids, and a 5X increased demand for energy. First we have the demands of the fetus that has grown exponentially during the last trimester of pregnancy. Second, the demands for rejuvenation of the mammary gland and, of course, the onset of lactation. Third, the digestive system adaptation, which includes such things as elongation and enlargement of the rumen papillae, and increases in muscle size, tone and activity. Unfortunately, voluntary feed intake declines during the last week before calving and this further reduces the ability of the cow to meet the increased nutrient demands needed at this time.

A well designed Close-Up Dry Cow Program of three (3) to four (4) weeks in length will dramatically help cows minimize the adverse effects of the reduction in feed intake during the last week of pregnancy and the increased nutrient demand prior to and after calving.

The following are some of the essential components of an effective close-up dry cow program:

1. Feed 10 to 12 lbs/cow/day of a processed cereal grain during this 3 to 4-week period. The starch in the cereal grain allows the rumen microbes to adjust their species and populations to be able to handle the higher levels of starch they will be receiving in the lactating ration. The rumen microbes need the full 3 to 4 weeks to make this adjustment. The dietary starch causes the rumen papillae to elongate and enlarge so they can more efficiently absorb the products of rumen fermentation, including any lactic acid that may be produced in the rumen.

2. The protein content of the ration should be at least 14% of the dry matter and should include a high quality protein, such as soybean meal, as well as the protein coming from the forages.

3. Feeding 5 to 8 lbs of long stemmed hay provides effective fiber necessary to keep the rumen mat intact and help reduce the incidence of displaced abomasum. The rest of the forage can be made up of whatever the lactating ration will contain. Some dairy producers like to include oat or barley straw in the close-up dry cow ration, but this creates a problem for the rumen microbes to adjust to, as there is no straw in the lactation ration. Alfalfa hay with less than 1.5% potassium works really well in the close-up ration to help prevent milk fever and other metabolic diseases associated with hypocalcemia, or abnormally low levels of blood calcium.

4. In addition to the low potassium alfalfa it is a good idea to include such products as SoyChlor or Biochlor or professionally designed anionic salts to increase the blood acidity. This promotes calcium resorption from the bone into the blood stream, thus minimizing hypocalcemia, and consequently milk fever, retained placenta, metritis and even mastitis. I tell producers who are having milk fever problems to add 2 lbs of SoyChlor to the close-up dry cow concentrate and keep track of the incidences of milk fever. If they are still having some milk fever cases, then they should feed 3 lbs/cow per day. If the 2 lbs/cow/day solves the problem, then they may be able to reduce it to 1.5 lbs. One way to make sure that the anionic salts and these chloride products are doing what they are supposed to do is to check the pH of the urine. Normal urine pH of lactating cows is in the range of 7.5 to 8.5. We need to get the pH down to 6.2 for Holsteins and 5.7 for Jerseys in order to slightly lower the pH of the blood to which the body responds by releasing calcium from the bone and increasing calcium absorption from the gut. You can easily check the urine pH with a pH meter or with litmus sticks that you can get from a drug store.

5. There are a number of close-up dry cow mineral/vitamin products on the market and it is best to include these in the concentrate to assure that they are consumed at the appropriate rates. A problem I see too often is that the cows are not consuming enough of a mineral that is offered free choice. These mineral/vitamin packages should provide a minimum of 1,000 I.U. of vitamin E/cow daily, and should provide no more selenium than the legal limit of 0.30 ppm in the total diet. Vitamins A and D should be supplied at 100,000 and 20,000 I.U./cow daily, respectively. I really like the chelated trace minerals such as ZinPro 4-Plex to provide readily available cobalt, copper, magnesium and zinc, which should be fed according to the manufacturer�s recommendations. Biotin at 20 mg/cow daily is a no-brainer, especially for the close-up dry cows.

6. One of the key management factors in close-up dry cow management is to do everything you can to keep the cows eating as much as possible during the last week before calving. This is difficult to accomplish. However, it really helps if the cows have plenty of bunk space and they are comfortable. We should not forget a reliable and readily available source of drinking water. Their feed should be kept fresh and should always be available. Diamond V Yeast Culture (and other similar products with controlled research to back up their claims) fed at double the manufacturer�s recommendations for lactating cows has resulted in an extra 2 lbs of dry matter intake during the last week of pregnancy and greater feed intake after calving. This extra feed intake is extremely valuable at this critical time, and really helps to eliminate many of the problems that normally occur at this time.

Editor�s Note: Dr. Ron Boman retired from USU on June 30, 2005 after 25 years service to USU and the dairy producers of Utah and the Intermountain region. ©