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Fresh cow health: The key to a profitable lactation

John Hibma Published on 06 April 2011

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The most profitable cow on the dairy is the fresh cow. The most productive cow on the dairy is the fresh cow. The more fresh cows a dairy has at any given time, the higher the herd’s milk average will be.

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On many dairies, however, preparing the close-up cow for her subsequent lactation is often an area that is overlooked. Poorly functioning rumens and metabolic diseases will rob the cow and the dairy farmer of the most efficiently produced milk of the lactation.

While not every fresh cow will have serious metabolic problems, many do not clean or show strong heats after freshening, indicating that those cows may be stressed and immuno-suppressed due to inadequate close-up and transitional diets.

As we strive for more efficient cows with higher milk peaks, the health of the fresh cow at the time of freshening becomes an area of greater focus for the dairy farmer.

Getting fresh cows to peak and sustain that peak requires close-up and transitional diets that will keep metabolic disease to a minimum and get those cows off to a strong lactation. But in the current economic environment, questions often asked are, “Do close-up diets really work?” and “How much is too much to spend on a close-up diet?”

As it turns out, the money spent on a close-up diet is some of the best money spent on a dairy, yielding monetary returns many times over.

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Dairy farmer Andy Samuelson (pictured above right) of Ashford, Connecticut, milks 40 cows. His herd is split about 50-50 with Holsteins and Jerseys. Samuelson had wanted to be a dairy farmer most of his life, and in 2009, he left his teaching career and assembled a herd of about 30 cows.

Yes, in 2009, the worst year in modern dairy history, he decided to enter the dairy business.

It was a tough first year, Samuelson admits – getting used to the dairy farming life and finding a facility to rent. Like anyone starting a new business, he was trying to be as frugal as possible and sometimes it didn’t work out for the best.

Initially, he was taking the feed refusals from his milk cows and feeding that to his dry cows and heifers. As a result, the dry cows got fat and freshened with ketosis and milk fever. The vet bills were ridiculous, Samuelson said.

Because of his facility limitations, Samuelson must keep his dry cows, both far-off and close-up, all together along with growing heifers. Realizing that his dry cows and close-ups were a significant priority, he began making available to all the animals in that group a molasses lick tub fortified with DCAD acidification.

In addition to corn silage and dry hay available to appetite, cows within two weeks of calving now receive 6 to 10 pounds per day of a grain pellet formulated for lower levels of potassium and salt.

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Samuelson noted that he has not had a displaced abomasum since he introduced the DCAD lick tubs to the cows in the spring of 2010. Where before he was having to routinely deal with metabolic issues with his fresh cows, he now very seldom has to treat anything.

Prior to the change in his close-up program, the Holstein cows rarely produced over 100 pounds of milk. Today, Samuelson says there’s no question that the change in diet has led to higher peaks and cows cleaning better after calving. There is very little udder edema and cows show estrus much more quickly after freshening.

This past February, eight of the cows fresh since November produced over 100 pounds of milk, with the highest at 135. Where the Holsteins averaged only 97 pounds at peak a year ago, they now average 111 pounds.

The Jerseys have climbed from 64-pound to 74-pound average peaks. The milking cow diet is formulated to support 85 pounds of milk with a custom grain mix from a local feed supplier, and the herd currently has a 70-pound average.

Studies over the years have shown that cows that have gone through a good dry cow program can be expected to produce 1,000 to 2,000 more pounds of milk during the following lactation. Samuelson has not only seen increased milk production in his cows, but a dramatic increase in milk components as well.

Comparing his components from a year earlier (January 2010), the average butterfat has increased from 3.9 percent to 4.7 percent and his milk protein has increased from 3.2 percent to 3.4 percent. Days in milk for his herd are the same for the two time periods.

The blend price for Northeast milk is very nearly the same for early 2010 and early 2011. With increased milk production and components, Samuelson’s milk revenue per cow increased over $2.50 per cow per day or about $750 per lactation.

The added cost of a DCAD supplement and dry cow feed for the close-up cows costs Samuelson an additional $2 per head per day compared to a non-DCAD diet – about $60 for the three weeks.

During the month of January 2011, Samuelson was concerned that some of his close-ups were a little too over-conditioned. As a precaution he added a rumen-protected choline to the close-up diet to alleviate any potential fatty liver problems.

Improvements in milk production and herd health do not happen overnight. It requires an understanding of where the weak points in a herd’s performance might be and addressing them appropriately. Then there must be a commitment to that program, no matter how costly it may appear on the front end.

As the saying goes: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” There’s no question in Andy Samuelson’s mind that the investment in a pre-fresh program pays for itself many times over – even in times when milk prices are not all they should be and feed prices continue to climb. PD

Photo courtesy of John Hibma.

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John Hibma
Nutritionist

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