By Alex Gathii
Guiding cows through early lactation is key to their health and performance. Nutrition and health greatly affect milk yields and prevents health problems. Having good feed practices can improve peak milk yields.
What is peak milk?
Peak milk is the highest recorded test day milk production in a cow’s first 150 days in milk (DIM). Historically, producers used peak milk as a measure of the success of the dry period and early lactation nutrition and management. Peak milk indicates how well a cow responds to feeding during the dry period, calving, and early lactation.
Most cows achieve peak milk by 45 to 90 DIM and then slowly lose production over time. Many argue that each added half-litre of peak milk could lead to 100 litres more milk for the whole lactation.
Nutrition and health disorders in early lactation affect peak milk. For example, low fibre diet/sorting can lead to rumen acidosis, which can result in lameness or displaced abomasum. Both conditions reduce peak milk.
So, how can a farmer improve early lactation performance and peak milk yield?
- Start-off yourcows with a successful dry period
What you feed your cow during the dry period (two months to calving down) affects her health and performance after giving birth. Evaluate your dry cow programme if you are unhappy with your cow’s milk production. Key goals for dry cows include:
- Maintaining dry matter intake (12 to 14kgs per day);
- Avoid overfeedingenergy feeds;
- Preventing body condition score (BCS) gain;
- Optimising comfort;
- Addressing hoof health.
- Prevent sub-clinical milk fever
Reduce the risk of sub-clinical milk fever (low blood calcium) during the first week of lactation. Low blood calcium (less than 8 milligrams deciliter) correlates with the following:
- Ketosis (a common cattle disease that typically occurs in dairy cows in early lactation characterised by partial anorexia and depression);
- Higher somatic cell count (SCC) indicates poor milk quality. The SCC shows the amount of white blood cells present in milk;
- Delayed uterine involution. Uterineinvolution is the stage during which a cow’s uterus resumes its regular size after calving. Any delay in involution can result in subsequent reproductive issues in your dairy cow;
- Postpartum metritis is an uterine infection that occurs within 21 days but is most common within 10 days of delivery;
- Depressed feed intake;
- Reduced milk yield.
- Optimise feed intake immediately after calving
- Provide 40 to 60 litres of warm water with drinkable drench;
- Allow access to fresh total mixed ration (TMR);
- Provide two to four kilos of Lucerne or grass hay;
- Keep the feed bunks clean and fresh.
- Optimise cow comfort
To optimise cow comfort, use a stocking rate at 80 to 85 per cent of capacity. Keep cows in a fresh group for 14 to 21 days and provide 30 to 36 inches of bunk space per cow. Reduce social stress (especially for first-calf heifers), prevent cows from separating from the normal herd mates and invest in cooling for dry and lactating cows.
- Maintain rumen health and prevent ruminal acidosis
Providing a flake of Lucerne or grass hay for the first five days after calving would be very helpful. An early lactation diet should contain plenty of good quality digestible fiber (31 to 35 percent neutral detergent fiber (NDF).
A farmer should maintain fibre with consistent feed intake and avoid empty bunks, provide free choice buffer, and monitor buffer intake. It is critical to minimise the risk of slug feeding or diet sorting that may result in rumen acidosis (low rumen pH; sour stomach).
- Identify cows with a history of metabolic or health problems
Cows with a history of milk fever, ketosis, or mastitis are likely to face these problems again. Keeping a close eye on such animals helps to prevent these problems.
Move cows carrying twins or first-calf heifers into the dry group early. Data shows a correlation with a seven to 10 days earlier calving date.
- Evaluate body condition score (BCS)
The target body condition score (BCS) at calving is 3.0-3.25. BSCis a visual assessment of the amount of fat and muscle covering the bones of a cow. The most common body condition scoring system ranks cows from 1 to 5, with 1 being thin and 5 being fat.
Avoid having cows reach a BCS greater than 4. A lower BCS at calving allows for 0.5 to 1.0 units of BCS within herd variation. This provides a safety margin to avoid overweight cows that have a higher risk for ketosis and fatty livers and are often more difficult to breed back.
- Position feed additives
Fresh cow groups are most likely to offer a return on investments (ROI) for feed additives. Studies support the following additives:
- Ionospheres (feed additives used in cattle diets to increase feed efficiency and body weight gain) increase glucose availability;
- Rumen-protected choline(an essential nutrient that helps maintain health) improves liver health and function;
- Protected amino acids meet amino acid requirements without overfeeding protein;
- Supplemental protected fat increases energy intake;
- Yeast culture stabilizes rumen fermentation.
- Avoid anti-nutritional factors
Anti-nutritional factors include feeds containing mold, wild yeast, and poorly fermented feeds. Mold counts of over 100,000 colonies per gram are likely to decrease feed intake and diet digestibility.
- Feed correct amounts of antioxidants
Antioxidants (for example, vitamin E and selenium) reduce the impact of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress could be too much fat mobilisation, poor air quality, or injury. All these decrease the efficiency of immune system function and consequently milk production.
Mr Alex Gathii is a certified Cow signals Trainer and a USAid Champion of Change