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Dairy’s elite athletes

Progressive Dairyman Editor Audrey Schmitz Published on 07 February 2019

If you’re reading this, you know something I don’t: who won Super Bowl 53. As I write this editorial, the divisional round of the NFL playoffs is complete.

As I thought about the culmination of football season, I realized there are a lot of similarities between coaching a football team and managing a herd of cows. Conditioning your players and preparing them to hold up for a long season is a must in order to make it to the Super Bowl or through a 305-day lactation.

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You probably don’t use the term “athletic” when describing your cows, but perhaps you should. The remarkable amount of metabolic work done by dairy cows rivals that of the toughest, strongest athletes.

Back when I took Physiology of Lactation in college, my professor, Timothy Rozell, referred to dairy cattle as high-performance athletes. He said the amount of energy that circulates in the blood through a dairy cow’s body and mammary system in a day was equivalent to that necessary for running a marathon. And the cow does it every day, day in and day out.

Cows require energy for the following functions: maintenance, growth, milk production, reproduction and body reserves (listed in order of priority). A cow’s total energy requirement is the sum of what it needs for each function. For example, a cow weighing 1,300 pounds making 100 pounds of milk containing 3.5 percent milkfat will require 9.57 megacalories (Mcal) per day for maintenance and 31 Mcal per day for milk production. That makes the cow’s total net energy for lactation requirement equal to 40.57 Mcal per day.

The average human burns around 2,000 calories per day for maintenance. To mathematically match up to a lactating dairy cow, a human would need to burn 300 percent more calories or 8,000 calories per day. While calorie burn varies depending on the weight of the NFL player, the average quarterback burns between 500 and 800 calories during an in-season practice. During their pre-season training camps, players can burn 2,000 to 3,000 calories during their double-session practices.

Even more remarkably, the cow increases its energy use from 10 Mcal to 40 Mcal approximately 10 days before calving to when the cow freshens in. To use our analogy, this is like expecting the athlete to be ready to compete with only two weeks of training.

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Dairy nutritionists have a common goal with human dietitians – providing a healthy, balanced diet for their clients. In a sense, the formulation of a transition cow ration is the nutritionist’s way of training or conditioning cows for the task of milk production. Just like human nutrition, dairy farmers must provide the correct amounts and balance of nutrients to their “athletes.” This is why proper nutrition is key to productive and profitable lactations.

There are also many similarities between the high metabolism and nutritional demands of a lactating dairy cow and high-performance athletes. The calories athletes eat come in the form of healthy foods with high carbohydrate and protein content. Each food eaten has a purpose, whether it’s for hydrating, muscle repair, preventing muscle cramping or to replace nutrients lost through sweat.

The same applies for dairy cows when formulating diets and selecting ration ingredients. Each ingredient or additive should play a vital role in body maintenance and milk production.

So as you look over your cow diets and TMR, make sure you are correctly preparing your cows for their daily workout.  end mark

Audrey Schmitz
  • Audrey Schmitz

  • Editor
  • Progressive Dairyman
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