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Managing dry cows at grass

Body condition scoring dry cows on grass is the only way to keep track of their performance and to avoid potential problems linked to changing weight, says Adam Collantine, Dugdale Nutrition Dairy Consultant.

Adam Collantine

Adam Collantine, Dugdale Nutrition Dairy Consultant

Body condition scoring dry cows on grass is the only way to keep track of their performance and to avoid potential problems linked to changing weight, says Adam Collantine, Dugdale Nutrition Dairy Consultant.

He says: “Through the winter, whilst dry cows are housed, measuring intakes is a great guide to how suitable the dry cow diet is. Now we’re into spring, and approaching summer, many dry cows are put out onto grass until at least 2-3 weeks off calving, if not right through to the act of calving itself.

“Just like with milking cows, it’s completely infeasible to monitor intakes on grazing animals but at least with them, you get a daily monitor to diet performance from their milk yields.

“If milk yield falls, it’s clear that supplementary feed needs to be offered to fill a gap in the diet. With dry cows, there’s no daily update that the cows can offer us.

Monitoring the body condition score of dry cows is therefore the only way to actively keep a check on their performance whilst they are at grass.”

Cows should be targeted to a body condition score of 3.0 to 3.5 during the dry period. The body condition score of dry cows is important, but it is the change in condition score that’s most important. If dry cows are gaining a lot of weight through the dry period, the quality or the amount of grazing available is too much, says Mr Collantine.

“Fat dry cows tend to have problems at calving, are more prone to milk fever and lose a lot of weight post calving, making the next lactation much more difficult. The only time it can be achieved is if you start with a very under conditioned cow.

“If dry cows are losing weight through the dry period, the opposite is true. The amount of grass, or the quality of that grass is not good enough.

“Cows that lose weight through the dry period have a tendency towards fatty liver and ketosis. They are also often less able to deal with any setbacks in early lactation. This makes monitoring the dry cows’ body condition score through the dry period very important.

“Condition scoring each group of dry cows is the only way to keep track on the performance of their grazing diet and to avoid the issues surrounding gaining or losing weight. Ideally, we want them to calve in the same condition they were dried off in. So weight management is always best undertaken when the cow is still milking,” he says.

“It is ideal to condition score the dry cows on at least a fortnightly basis, if not weekly. Wherever possible, it should be the same person condition scoring the cows each time. Whilst there is a lot of guidance available for scoring cows’, each different assessor will read condition slightly differently and this could skew the results.

“After condition scoring each cow, the average for each of the dry cow groups should be calculated and recorded.

“The cows in each group will change regularly as they calve and new cows are dried off, so it is the average for the group that should be monitored. Graphing the average weekly or fortnightly condition is a great visual way to see changes in condition score, and take appropriate action nice and early,” he says.

“On top of condition scoring dry cows, another good measure is to track the dry cows ‘rumen fill’ scores This provides a further opportunity to monitor dry cow performance and intakes, which are crucial in ensuring dry cows become productive and trouble free lactating cows.

“The rumen is carried high, on the left hand side of the cow. Assessing how full the rumen is can give a good indicator to their intakes. A rumen fill score of 1, is very hollow and suggests the cow hasn’t eaten for some time, whilst a rumen fill score of 5 is a quite distended rumen, probably full of fibre.

“We should be targeting a rumen fill score of between 3 and 4 in dry cows, this ensures that they are eating enough and the rumen is staying nice and big.

“Both condition scoring and rumen fill scoring should be undertaken by an experienced operative, who can not only assess the scores, but also make changes based on those scores to maximise performance going forward.

“Making sure that dry cows are eating enough, and are in the correct condition is vital for a trouble free calving, and to ensure that cows get going quickly into lactation,” says Mr Collantine.

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