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Feeding cows for peak milk production performance

Feeding cows for peak milk production performance

By: Will Brocklehurst, Alltech InTouch Feeding Specialist, Midlands and Southeast England

Looking at the transition from the dry-cow period to peak production, Will Brocklehurst from Alltech InTouch gives a step-by-step guide on balancing dairy cow diets to promote health and performance while remaining cost-efficiency.

The lactation cycle of a dairy cow is the period — lasting 305 days, on average — between calvings that is commonly divided into four phases:

  1. Early lactation

  2. Mid-lactation

  3. Late lactation

  4. The dry cow period


Source: Research Gate

“Peak milk” refers to the highest level of daily milk production you can expect from your milking heifers and mature cows in early to mid-lactation. On average, “peak milk” is a two-to-three-week window that arrives 40 to 60 days after calving. 

Any problems the cows experience within the first 40 days can have a significant impact on their peak milk — and, as a result, on the overall performance of a herd. Meeting the evolving and changing needs of cows as they transition from late pregnancy to early lactation to peak production is vital.

Let’s take a look at the factors that have the biggest impact on the calving transition to peak performance:

  1. Minimising cow stress pre-calving 

  2. Ensuring dry matter intakes post-calving

  3. Supplying energy for peak milk yield

  4. Selecting the right feed additives 

1. Minimising cow stress pre-calving 


The most stressful moment in a dairy cow’s year arrives at the point of calving, when she is required to do multiple things at once. If we don’t get calving right, the implications can be major and drawn out — but if we do get it right, we’ll have a stronger foundation on which to build the lactation period. Unfortunately, however, getting it right is not always straightforward.

As explained in this article from Dairy Herd, the costs of making major mistakes during this period can be substantial. Subclinical milk fever, in particular, can pose a big problem and has been correlated with the common metabolic issues that often manifest around calving and that sometimes go on to impact the rest of lactation. 

Here are the top three areas we recommend focusing on as you prepare your cows for calving and early lactation: 

1.   Feeding

Dry cows have different nutritional requirements than lactating cows, but both are equally important. Aim for a body condition score of 3.0 to 3.5, and keep cows from reaching a condition score of 4 or above, as over-conditioned cows have significantly lower intakes in the dry period, which correlates directly with their intakes post-calving. There are several dietary strategies that help tackle this issue head-on when deployed correctly — but no matter what route you take, consulting with an on-farm nutritionist is key. 

2.   Grouping

Splitting the dry cows into two groups — i.e., far-off and close-up — can be very helpful, as it allows you to better match the cows’ increasing needs during pregnancy and to reduce their dry matter intake as calving approaches. 

3.   Housing

Management plays a huge part in reducing stress at the point of calving. The Cow Signals concept, which focuses on creating a stress-free calving line, can go a long way toward reducing stress. The three most important aspects of housing during this period are providing the cows with proper feed, plentiful clean water and a comfortable lying space, as each of these factors can impact a cow’s comfort and dry-matter intake. 

2. Ensuring dry-matter intakes post-calving 


When calving is done, we should shift our focus to helping maximise the cows’ feed intakes post-calving. In the run-up to calving, a cow’s dry matter intake can drop by around 30%, and it can remain low 24 to 48 hours after calving. As a result, cows are at a greater risk of having insufficient nutrient reserves to help them recover from calving and cope with the demands of early lactation. 

Here are a few tips for avoiding the issues associated with a drop in dry-matter intake: 

  1. Ensuring that the freshly calved cow eats and drinks immediately after she calves down will continue to impact her dry-matter intake for up to 10 to 12 weeks post-calving. More immediately though, ensuring proper intakes quickly post-calving helps add weight to the rumen and fill the internal void left by the calf, thereby reducing the likelihood of a displaced abomasum. Additionally, water intake has been shown to be closely related to feed intake. A cow’s water intake will likely drop pre-calving. As a result, the cow may be slightly dehydrated when she calves — and unless we remedy that, it could have a detrimental effect on her feed intake going forward. 

  2. Grouping fresh cows together for a period of two to three weeks after calving can be extremely useful, as it enables the cows to be monitored more closely and given priority in terms of feed, water, lying space and ventilation. You may also want to give these cows priority in terms of fans or extra cooling measures. 

In terms of space, consider the following tips: 

  • Stock cows at 80–85% of full capacity.

  • Allow for a minimum of 75 cm and up to 90 cm of feed space per cow.

  • There should be a minimum of 10 cm of linear water trough space per cow.

  1. Social stress and hierarchical bullying are important factors to consider, especially in heifers. Managing this type of stress and minimising a cow’s separation from her normal herdmates can help maintain intakes. Heifers could also benefit from being in their own group for the whole first lactation. 

  2. Monitoring the cow’s rumen fill and body condition score during the initial fresh period can give you clues on how well she is eating, both in the short term and over a longer period of time. Cows often lose around half a point of their body condition score after calving — but if this happens too suddenly, it could be the result of suboptimal intakes or a ration that has not been formulated correctly and needs reviewing.

3. Supplying energy for peak milk yield


Milk yields normally peak around 40 to 60 days post-calving. However, a lactating cow won’t reach her maximum intake until 70 to 84 days post-calving, which poses a potential problem, as she is not in a position to consume enough energy from her diet to support her lactation requirements in the intervening period. This issue is referred to as a negative energy balance and is something that almost all lactating dairy cows face. 

To combat a negative energy balance, rations commonly transition away from high levels of forage in the dry-cow ration to higher levels of concentrate feeds in the milking ration. If rations are not managed correctly, the cows’ gut microbiome won’t adapt quickly enough, which can lead to rumen acidosis — a precursor to other health and performance challenges.  

Fibre-digesting bacteria in the rumen require a pH of around 6.5 to work effectively. The bacterial population is adversely affected when the rumen pH drops to 6 or below, which happens when there’s an increase in the production of lactic acid — in the form of rumen acidosis.

There are several ways to help reduce the risk of rumen acidosis when transitioning to the peak yield period:  

  1. Give freshly calved cows free access to rumen buffers, such as sodium bicarbonate, to help stabilise their rumen pH and keep it consistent. If you choose to do this, however, it is important to monitor their intakes closely, as doing so will give you an idea of how much pressure the rumen is facing from the diet being fed. If intakes of the rumen buffer are high, it could be a good idea to reformulate the ration.

  2. Feed rumen-protected fats to help increase or maintain the energy density within the fresh ration whilst alleviating some of the pressure the rumen may be under.

  3. Pay close attention to the TMR mix quality. A poorly mixed ration that allows cows to sort out concentrate ingredients will only serve to exacerbate the problems outlined above. Keeping an eye on cow behaviour at the feed fence will help you identify if they are able to sort through the diet or not. Read this blog on creating the perfect TMR.

  4. If cows are being fed concentrates in the milking parlour or are using out-of-parlour-feeders, be aware of the impacts of “slug feeding” and inconsistent intakes. For example, cows receiving large amounts of concentrate two or three times a day will be under significantly more pressure. In this situation, it is important to try and build cows up gradually so that the rumen has the proper amount of time to adjust. 

  5. This may also be an issue if cows run out of ration at the feed barrier, emphasising the importance of regular feed push-ups and feeding times. Whilst feed may be expensive, operating at a 5% leftover rate when cows are in the fresh group is recommended to ensure that their performance capabilities are being maximised. This 5% can be fed to another group of less-pressured animals on the farm. If leaving 5% leftover isn’t possible, then proper attention to detail is required to get fresh cows eating 100% of their feed without compromising their performance at peak milk time.

  6. Provide good-quality, digestible neutral detergent fibre (NDF) in the ration. NDF stimulates rumination and effective cud chewing. Cows produce between 10 to 32 litres of saliva per kilogram of dry matter consumed. This saliva contains sodium bicarbonate, which serves as a natural buffer. Diets that are higher in roughage and, as a result, in NDF will produce more saliva than diets high in grain, for example. 

4. Selecting the right feed additives


There is such a wide and diverse range of feed additives on the market that it can be difficult to know which way to turn when deciding which one will give you the best return on investment at a given point of a cow’s lactation on your farm. Here are some aspects to consider as you look at feed additives: 

  1. Maximising rumen function through formulating and feeding a balanced ration leading up to peak lactation is fundamental. Live yeasts, such as Yea-Sacc®, have been shown to stabilise rumen fermentation and to have a positive effect on both fibre-digesting and lactate-utilising bacteria, helping the cow adjust to a higher-concentrate ration. Yeasts like Yea-Sacc also work well alongside rumen buffers to help keep the rumen pH consistent.

  2. Cows that are forced to mobilise their own internal fat reserves in order to support their energy requirements at peak lactation are at a greater risk for various health challenges, such as ketosis and fatty liver, as well as body condition losses. Rumen-protected choline (RPC) can support liver health and function due to choline’s role in fatty acid transport. A meta-analysis study (Arshad et al., 2020) found that feeding RPC during the transition period increases dry matter intake, milk yield and milk solids in fresh cows post-calving.

  3. Cows that are given too much protein end up wasting the energy they are fed on removing the excess protein in their system. On the other hand, cows that aren’t given sufficient protein will have less microbial activity and a lower rate of digestion. Optigen® offers a steady and sustained release of soluble non-protein nitrogen (NPN), which is important for fibre-digesting bacteria and 30% of starch-digesting bacteria. When formulated correctly, NPN helps improve rumen function as well as the output of volatile fatty acids (VFAs), meaning more energy will be available to the cow. We must also consider appropriately balancing the cows’ diets in terms of their amino acid supply. Rumen-protected forms of amino acids are the best choice; rumen-protected methionine, for example, has been shown to increase dry matter intakes, milk yields and milk proteins. 

  4. Oxidative stress caused by factors such as fat mobilisation, poor air quality and physical injuries at calving will impact the functions of a cow’s immune system. Proper vitamin and mineral supplementation — particularly with vitamin E and selenium, which are antioxidants — can help cows overcome oxidative stress. Organic forms of selenium, such as Sel-Plex®, are more bioavailable to the animal and have been shown to improve selenium status, resulting in greater postpartum health. 

Despite all of this advice, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, especially when it comes to feeding. Different tactics work for different farms depending on a huge number of factors, from the type of forage to the breed of cow. 

This is where the input of the InTouch Feeding Specialist team proves useful. Powered by InTouch feeding technology, our team of independent advisors is valued by dairy farmers all over the U.K. for their expertise, which allows them to view your cows through the lens of Cow Signals and their feeding and performance data.

InTouch is an advanced feed management system that keeps farmers connected with and in control of their feed conversion efficiency, margin from feed and all-around farm sustainability. The InTouch toolkit — which includes a control unit, a mobile app and an online dashboard — puts precision feed management at the farmer’s fingertips. This data is all driven and supported by our specialist on-farm and remote team, whose goal is to work with farm teams to help improve their feeding accuracy and optimise their TMR performance.