Maximise dry matter intake after calving

Negative energy balance

Starting at two weeks before calving, dairy cattle can already get in negative energy balance due to the growth of the calf, start of the colostrum production and a strong decrease in dry matter intake. Especially fat cows with a Body Condition Score of 4 or greater are at risk. Dairy cows in negative energy balance will start to mobilise body fat. Massive mobilisation of body fat reserves can result in metabolic problems, related to the fact that the liver can’t cope with the high amounts of fatty acids mobilised from the fat tissue.

The consequences of a negative energy balance

Dairy cows in negative energy balance have an increased risk to develop clinical or sub-clinical ketosis. Ketosis in dairy cows will have a negative impact on dry matter intake, health, fertility and production of the lactating cow. Recent evidence suggests that sub-clinical ketosis in cattle is much more common than clinical ketosis.

Signs of ketosis in dairy cows

Signs suggestive of sub-clinical ketosis in dairy cows are:

  • A drop in body condition score of more than 1,0 point
  • A disappointing milk production in combination with a fat:protein ratio above 1.5
  • A reduction of dry matter intake
  • Reduced fertility

Managing the negative energy balance correctly can therefore have a strong positive effect on farm profitability.

Dry cow management

Most of the problems occurring in the first few weeks after calving are related to dry cow management. Aim at a dry cow period of 8 weeks. During the first 6 weeks (far-off period) feed intake should be reduced to ensure the body condition score does not increase above 3.5.

During the last two weeks (close-up period), the diet should be similar to what is fed after calving. Ensure energy density of the diet is high, this compensates partly for the lower dry matter intake immediately after calving. A higher concentrate level will increase total dry matter intake. Provide sufficient levels of glucogenic energy. Feeding sufficient levels of glucogenic energy will increase insulin levels. One of the effects of insulin is that it decreases fat mobilisation. Ensure good structure and palatability of the diet and ensure it contains sufficient effective fibre.

Calcium intake during the last two weeks before calving should be reduced as much as possible by adding something to the diet that reduces calcium intake. Magnesium supply should be optimised.

Body condition score dairy cattle

Dry cow management should aim at a body condition score at calving of 3 to 3.5 on a scale of 5. For modern Holstein cows, it should be 3 rather than 3.5. If the body condition score is above 3.5, calving becomes more difficult and dry matter intake after calving will be reduced. This will increase the risk of clinical and sub-clinical ketosis with all its negative consequences. It is normal for the body condition score to go down after calving, but it should not go down below 2.

In the second half of lactation, there is a serious risk that the body condition score increases too much, resulting in a body condition score above 3.5 at calving.

Download the body condition score poster.

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