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0108 PD: Give dry cows first-class treatment for future lactation success

Elliot Block Published on 21 December 2007

On some dairy operations dry cows are “out of sight, out of mind.” While it’s important to keep the dry period as uneventful as possible, we still need to monitor dry cow activity to ensure cows have every opportunity to calve successfully and begin profitable lactations.

An uneventful, successful dry period actually starts in late lactation when and if body condition scores (BCS) are at appropriate levels.

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According to Dr. Charles Sniffen, owner of Fencrest Nutrition, LLC in Holderness, New Hampshire, body condition scoring is an incredibly important tool that provides an indication of how cows are responding to the nutrition program. It’s also a wake-up call for some dairies when they learn their cows aren’t getting the right nutrition. If your herd’s body condition scores are lower or higher than anticipated, adjusting rations can help avoid bigger issues down the road.

Sniffen recommends a body condition score of 3.25 at dry-off, which should be maintained throughout the dry period. This will provide cows enough protection at freshening, when they can lose a half point or more, so they have enough body condition to make it through the lactation and get bred back sooner. Higher and lower body condition scores can have adverse effects on milk production and component levels, reproduction and lameness. The following are ways you can alter your nutrition program if body condition scores aren’t meeting expectations. (See Figure 1* for examples of healthy, overconditioned and underconditioned cows.)

If cows are too heavy …
Cows with body condition score higher than 3.25 during the dry period can be a real concern, Sniffen says. Once they calve, these cows tend to eat less, causing them to mobilize excess body fat. They could spend more time in negative energy balance, resulting in higher incidence of metabolic disorders and reproductive difficulties.

If you recognize cows are calving with high body condition scores, changes should be made to the mid- and late-lactation ration to avoid overconditioning. Cows usually gain weight in late lactation as milk production and intake decreases. Although production and intake decrease during this time, body condition scores can still remain relatively high. Continue to provide quality protein and energy sources, making sure that the protein balance exceeds the energy balance, and adjust levels to meet nutritional requirements as needed to maintain adequate score levels.

If cows calve in with a body condition score higher than 3.5, Sniffen again recommends focusing on protein and energy levels in the mid- and late-lactation cows to safely control body condition:

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• Protein – Especially for cows carrying extra weight, every bite of feed will have to provide proper nutrition levels. If protein levels are not met, this can also impact milk and component production.

• Energy – Adequate energy will be needed in the ration to meet mid- and late-lactation milk and component levels, especially with lowered dry matter intake.

An efficient energy source is critical to make sure energy needs are met without upsetting rumen function.

If cows are too thin …
If cows enter lactation with lower-than-desirable BCS, they often don’t peak as high and are hard to get bred back. These cows typically have higher intakes once they enter the milking string, but the extra energy they consume from the ration is used for daily maintenance rather than milk production and reproductive function.

By boosting energy and protein levels, you can safely provide the extra condition your cows need and help them perform at their genetic potential. This will also be beneficial for milk production and reproductive performance.

Scoring the herd
Sniffen advises producers to measure BCS on a weekly basis and record results on a computer to analyze data for emerging and ongoing trends. While scores of individual cows make up the data set, it’s important to analyze the data on a whole-group basis. This ensures the entire late-lactation group has adequate condition and prevents adjusting the ration based on a few cows outside of the normal range.

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In a smaller herd, Sniffen recommends scoring all of the cows during the dry period. In larger herds, he recommends scoring at least 30 percent of the herd for a whole-herd representation.

Body condition scoring should be monitored by someone who is well acquainted with the scoring guide. Sniffen suggests an outside source scores alongside a permanent employee a few times a year to ensure scores do not drift. This happens frequently when one person is responsible for body condition scoring, Sniffen says. When individuals see the same herd every week, their scores can easily shift up or down, which can be corrected by working with an outside expert.

Body condition scoring, when used correctly, can be a great indicator of your nutrition program. Because it plays a large role in monitoring dry cow health prior to calving, body condition scoring should be an ongoing activity. Although they aren’t making money right now, giving dry cows the right nutrition and attention can have a major influence on their profitability during their next lactation. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

Figure omitted but is available upon request to .

Elliot Block

ARM & HAMMER Animal Nutrition

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