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1006 PD: Supplement rations for optimum cow health, production and profitability

Elliot Block Published on 02 October 2006

When milk prices are down, independent nutritionist Greg Bethard has this advice for the dairy producers he serves: “Stay the course with your rations.”

“The most important things a producer can do through low milk prices are to maintain cow health and pregnancy rates. These are so critical for the long-term success of any dairy,” says Bethard, who oversees some 50,000 cows for producers in the High Plains and eastern United States. “If producers keep cows healthy and pregnant, when milk prices turn around, their herd is going to be in a position where it can make the most milk possible to capture all the revenue possible.”



It’s good management for all dairy producers to watch every input cost for their herds, Bethard points out. But any move that saves money in the short-term and leads to more open, low-producing cows long on days in milk (DIM) and short on good health, can have adverse, long-term consequences, leading to lower milk production down the road, he says.

“Forage quality, feeding a healthy ration and caring for cows properly are so important,” he says. “And feed ingredients helping cows transition better and improve health and pregnancies, are things producers really shouldn’t pull out of rations.”

Putting this advice into action means effectively managing each stage of a cow’s life cycle – be it transition, fresh or lactating – for the best possible long-term results. Each life cycle provides unique opportunities to improve reproduction and cow health and, ultimately, increase productivity and profitability. Here’s how:

Start with transition
One of the most critical phases in a cow’s life occurs three weeks prepartum as she ramps up for her coming lactation. Intense management during this close-up period leads to a healthy fresh phase and maximum production during the lactating phase. Taking steps in close-up to minimize milk fevers and retained placentas, and, ultimately, boost pregnancy rates and milk production, adds up to substantial increases in long-term net profits.

Each case of milk fever equates to $186 in lost profit. An independent research study showed feeding a transition-specific rumen fermentation enhancer for 21 days prior to calving reduced milk fevers from the average 7 percent incidence to just 2 percent, saving $9.30 per cow on every 100 cows. The same research showed a transition-specific rumen fermentation enhancer helped cut the typical 15 percent retained placenta rate nearly in half – a substantial savings, given that each retained placenta costs an average of $217 or $32.55 per cow for every 100 cows.


The effect of feeding a transition-specific rumen fermentation enhancer carries right through to cows’ subsequent lactations, proven in three independent studies showing increased production of 1,872, 3,000 and 3,200 pounds of milk per cow per lactation.

With each pregnancy valued at $450, effective transition management demands preparing cows for efficient reproduction in the next lactation. Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids, fed during transition, help build the reproductive hormones responsible for ovulation, estrous cycles and visible signs of heat and follicle growth. And they assist with progesterone production, helping cows maintain higher levels through conception, so when they get pregnant they’re more likely to remain pregnant.

In two different studies, Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids increased pregnancy rates by 5 percent, with 2 percent of that increase attributed to the effects of feeding Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids prepartum. A 2 percent increase in pregnancy rate valued at $70 per cow per year, less $3.15 for feeding essential fatty acids for 21 days, equates to $66.85 profit per cow.

Fresh phase
The three-week fresh phase is a critical period in which cows have the chance to advance into a profitable lactation as quickly as possible. The ideal fresh phase prepares cows for successful rebreeding, while stepping up dry matter intake (DMI) to reach optimal milk production.

A rumen fermentation enhancer fed during the fresh phase and beyond helps cows prepare to hit peak milk production, allowing rumen microbes to become more efficient and grow in numbers. This stabilizes the rumen to help improve DMI and nitrogen utilization.

In a university study, cows fed a rumen fermentation enhancer during the first 100 days of lactation had a 3.4 pound increase in milk production. At $10.50 per hundredweight (cwt) for milk, that equates to $35.70 additional gross profit, less $24 for the rumen fermentation enhancer means $11.70 net profit per cow.


At the same time, including feed-grade potassium carbonate in rations helps cows maintain blood buffering capacity to enhance DMI and milk components, along with overall productivity. Feed-grade potassium carbonate helps keep cows’ DCAD (dietary cation-anion difference) levels in the positive range. The result is a smooth transition with fewer metabolic diseases and higher peaks.

In three independent studies, the average milk yield response to DCAD balancing with a feed-grade potassium carbonate was 3.2 pounds additional milk per cow per day for the first 100 days of lactation. At $10.50 per cwt, that equates to additional revenue of $33.60. Subtracting the $11.25 feed ingredient cost means an additional $22.35 profit per cow.

Lactating phase
Maintaining the highest possible DMI throughout the lactating stage, or final 200 days of lactation, allows cows to remain as healthy as possible. And healthy cows have the ability to maintain peak production and component levels to achieve the highest levels of profitability.

Cows fed a rumen fermentation enhancer throughout the final 200 days of lactation responded with 3.4 pounds more milk per day in a university research trial. That means $71.40 in added income, based on $10.50 per cwt milk. Subtracting the $48 feed ingredient cost leaves a net profit per cow of $23.40.

Fed throughout lactation at a rate of .20 to .35 pounds per cow per day, feed-grade potassium carbonate provides the cations that rations need to remain in the optimal +25 DCAD range. The result is fewer metabolic diseases, improved DMI and higher milk production and components.

The average milk response in three independent DCAD balancing studies showed cows produced 3.2 pounds more milk per day during the final 200 days of lactation when feed-grade potassium carbonate was included in their rations. That’s $67.20 more income per cow, based on $10.50 per cwt milk, less feed ingredient costs of $22.50 means another $44.70 profit per cow.

Designing and sticking to a nutrition program that’s built around each stage of a cow’s life cycle helps you maintain optimal herd health and pregnancy levels. This will get you through lower milk prices and set you up to really capitalize on higher prices.

“Producers have to just focus on doing things right and staying the course,” nutritionist Greg Bethard sums up. “Milk prices will turn around. And when they do, producers need to be there at the table waiting to reap and harvest every bit of milk revenue they can.” PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

Elliot Block, Senior Manager, Central Technical Services, Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition for Progressive Dairyman