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The ‘Goldilocks Diet’: Feeding dry cows just right

Karena Elliott for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 February 2017

“If you look at modern, large or expanding farms, the ‘big three’ headaches are transition problems, excessive calf death loss and mastitis,” points out James K. Drackley, professor of animal sciences at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign.

Transition difficulties specifically result in huge economic losses from “dead cows, early culled cows, treatment costs, lost peak milk and negatively impacted reproduction,” he says.

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As the cow is moving from one lactation period to the next, the bulk of a successful dry cow diet is roughly 75 percent forage. The goal is to provide enough bulk to fill the rumen without having too much energy content.

“As corn silage feeding rates have crept up, even in dry cows, the risks of too much energy during the dry period have increased, causing more problems,” Drackley explains.

Cows entering transition in heavy condition can result in metabolic problems such as fatty liver, ketosis and displaced abomasums after calving. Excess energy in the dry cow diet magnifies these problems. Mistakes in the transition diet affect the bottom line, and diseases during this time can significantly diminish milk output during lactation.

In short, a good transition results in healthy cows, which increases profits. Drackley’s Goldilocks diet has grown in popularity for use during transition.

“The basic concept of the program is that we don’t want to underfeed dry cows relative to their energy requirement, but we definitely don’t want to overfeed them either,” he says. “So not too much, not too little, but just right.”

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Drackley recognizes Dr. Gordie Jones with developing the concept of these diets on U.S. farms, and cites Dr. Pete Drehman and Hugh Kerr in Scotland with making significant contributions. However, no one really knew what to call the program.

“I credit my former graduate student, Dr. Nicole Janovick, for coming up with the Goldilocks name, based on that simple idea,” Drackley says. “Obviously that is much catchier than ‘controlled-energy, high-fiber’ (CEHF), which is what I call it.”

Advantages of the Goldilocks diet include fewer metabolic issues, lower feed costs and convenience. “Producers like the way cows look full and content, with good appetites after calving,” Drackley notes.

“Another benefit that is seldom realized or discussed is that these diets actually can decrease feed cost per cow per day,” he adds. “Cows eat less total dry matter per day when you bulk up the diet with straw.

Depending on how much straw is needed to cut the energy density of the corn silage and concentrate, cows will eat from 2 to 5 pounds less dry matter.”

If straw processing can be easily handled in ration formulation, the Goldilocks approach is also convenient, simple and consistent over time. The cumulative effect of these advantages results in greater labor efficiency.

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“Our recommendations are, if farms are using the two-group dry cow system with a higher-nutrient close-up ration, that it is really important to hold the far-off cows down to their energy requirements,” Drackley says.

While Goldilocks is a relatively simple approach for transition feeding, it does require disciplined management to make it work.

“While the feedstuffs used to dilute energy are generally consistent, I recommend sampling at least once per month, along with the silage and other ration constituents, and to be aware of dry matter or nutrient changes that require rebalancing,” explains Cameron Nightingale, dairy nutritionist and management consultant with Pine Creek Nutrition Service Inc.

“Excellent feeding and bunk management, along with monitoring dry matter intake, are also key,” adds the Lubbock, Texas, resident.

With good management practices, Goldilocks can be a useful long-term feeding approach for transition cows. “I think as time goes by, producers that stick with the program become more and more satisfied with it because some of the effects are long term,” Drackley says.

Rob Seiber of Wiggins, Colorado, has been using a Goldilocks diet for a little over two years. “This is a great program for feeding dry cows, and it complements our facilities and management,” he says. The owner of Seiber Dairy milks 700 cows three times a day, and Goldilocks allows him to use a lot of home-grown straw and oat hay. Nightingale is his nutritionist.

“My clients’ herds are maintaining excellent rumen fill pre-calving, resulting in fewer metabolic disorders after calving, increased first-service conception, and likely the greatest result is up to a 15 percent increase in peak milk,” Nightingale says.

Dairy nutritionist Naji Nassereddine of NAN Consulting & Nutrition LLC agrees. “We have had good luck with it when it comes to metabolic problems, and fat cows have not been a problem.”

Forage options for the Goldilocks diet include hay, straw, silage and cornstalks.

“Wheat straw is typically the most readily available and preferred choice for energy dilution and providing bulky fiber,” Nightingale notes. “But working in different states throughout the West, feeds like barley straw, oat straw or mature oat or triticale hay are (also) utilized.”

Nassereddine has an Arizona customer currently using bermuda straw and gin trash in their Goldilocks diet, although they have also used barley straw in the past. “I prefer bermuda straw (because) it is more consistent and cleaner than gin trash, and it mixes better than barley straw,” he says.

The experts agree that Goldilocks requires a well-mixed TMR so that intake is consistent and cows do not sort feed for concentrates. Straw and hays must be appropriately processed to mix well.

“As long as the farm is able to process the straw (or other low-energy forage) correctly – the single biggest factor in whether this works on-farm – so the cows don’t sort the ration, it is a very simple and consistent diet,” Drackley says.

“I always recommend grinding so as to not rely on the TMR box to do the processing,” Nightingale adds.

“Grinding rougher feedstuffs is always a challenge to keeping particle size consistent so that it mixes well into the TMR and is not sortable, not to mention the shrink during grinding and storage,” Seiber explains. The Colorado dairyman runs horizontal-screw feed trucks so they rely more on pre-processing as compared to dairies using vertical mixers.

Some rations may require added water for better palatability, and dairy managers should consistently evaluate fresh feed versus refusals. Feedbunks should also be cleaned daily to avoid mold. “Above all, make sure cattle have access to fresh feed that is pushed up often,” Seiber says.

The low-energy transition ration has been Nightingale’s mainstay program for about seven years, with adjustments for management, housing, crowding, commingling of heifers and cows, bunk space and pre-existing fresh cow challenges.

Nassereddine says one of the key advantages for dairy managers regards the bottom line. “Of course, feed cost has been lower on close-ups,” he shares. “It is cheaper, safer and easy to implement.”

“We have been using this type of nutrition program for a little over two years,” Seiber says. “We observed very quickly a reduction in fresh cow problems and, over time, have seen fewer culls in early lactation, better first-service conception and improved peak milk.”

“If implemented correctly, Goldilocks works as well as any other transition program has ever worked, with consistency and simplicity,” Drackley says. That makes feeding dry cows “just right.”  end mark

Karena Elliott is an international freelance writer. She makes her home in Amarillo, Texas.

Learn more about Seiber Dairy, one of the dairy operations implementing the Goldilocks diet: Dairyman credits success to family, consultants on 700-cow farm.

Karena Elliott
  • Karena Elliott

  • Freelance Writer
  • Amarillo, Texas

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