Essential guide on how to optimise early lactation in your herd

Seamus Callanan: Alltech Ireland InTouch Feeding Specialist

The recent period of mild weather has given farmers an extra pep in their step, writes Seamus Callanan

The memories of last summer’s drought coupled with winter forage shortages are nearly a distant thought, I stress nearly.

As the grazing season get into full flight, total farm covers are good but wide-ranging, anywhere from 700-1,300 kilograms of dry matter per hectare. This an increase of 10-40% more grass available compared to other years and so it gives us an opportunity to capitalise on this.

We are also in the midst of the calving season and it is worth remembering that up to 80% of metabolic problems a dairy cow can experience can occur in the transition period.

This is a staggering statistic and one that stems from when she is dry, to the first three weeks of lactation with knock on affects for the breeding season. Many farmers have had some fantastic calving results with minimal intervention or metabolic issues.

This gives the dairy cow a fantastic start to her lactation and breeding season. Of course, there are other cows and farms which will struggle in these periods.

Ultimately a dairy cow goes through two major stress points in her lifetime. One is at the point of weaning and the other is at the point of calving. It is very important to make life for our cows as stress free as possible.

Dry matter intake (DMI) is vital measurement in early lactation. While a cow will not reach peak DMI until maybe 8-10 weeks post calving she reaches her peak milk yield around 6-8 weeks.

Cows will lose body condition in early lactation because of this, but it should be minimised to <0.5 of a body condition unit (4% of body weight).

This can be minimised by chasing DMI and feeding the correct diet in the correct proportions (grass, silage, concentrate) based on your cow and milk yield. Cows in early lactation having loads of milk with great solids might not be a sign of a perfect diet but rather cows being fed with their own body condition.

There is a truer reflection of the diet to be seen six weeks post calving around mid-March, when poor condition and lower solids might not reflect the diet then but one fed over the last six weeks.


There are some farmers now who have cows out day and night in some parts of Cork.

The aim of 30% grazed by the end of February is now a common discussion amongst many. With such constant growth rates over the previous months, some heavy covers are now present on a number of farms.

Some may graze low covers in a race to get 30% grazed, others will graze the heavy covers to get them off in case a turn in the weather may come. Some farmers have mentioned that when they left a higher residual in the field after grazing in the first rotation, there was not a drastic reduction in quality with these fields compared to the fields you have grazed tighter in the first rotation. Although care needs to be taken on its effect on overall tonnage produced for this area.

It is especially important for higher yield cows to not force them to graze tightly (<4cm) as forcing these cows to graze tighter will only result in the cow and the milk tank suffering. Cows will also need more concentrate when inside versus outside which sounds straight forward enough but is not adhered to on some farms, especially later in the season when farms experience weather events. Having multiple diets or scenarios due to weather should be planned well in advance; i.e.

  • If cows are in full time
  • If cows are out by day
  • If cows are out night and day

While there should be no fear of removing feed once the cow does not need it, in the opposite way there should be no fear of including it again at a later stage

Buffer Feeding

Supplementary feeding can work very well with grass. Most farms will use the three ways outlined below to feed their cows with the proportions affected by stocking rate, milk yield, weather etc.

  • Grazed grass
  • Mixer wagon
  • Parlour

Based on the factors above there is no “one size fits all” approach and so eliminating silage or concentrate should be based on your own farm circumstance. Grass will and should be the cornerstone of the diet, but rather than just being allocated it needs to be utilised, which can be two very different figures.

The common issue raised out there is that if you supplement you substitute — and again this happens — but this needs to be managed by measurement. For instance, if we offer 12kg of grass and 12kg of supplement and the cows can only eat 20kg, then this is an issue.

While some farms can give many reasons not to measure and budget grass it would be important to know one figure — how much grass have they available in the paddock to consume today?

Being able to ‘eye-ball’ a cover and determine there is say 1400kg. If the allocation is 2.5acres (1ha) for 1000cows, this gives an allocation of 14kg of grass per cow. This will go a long way in determining how much supplement is required. Only then can you make an accurate assumption of when supplement should be stopped based on your cow, your stocking rate etc.

Also, one thing to be mindful of on some farms is that as herd sizes have increase over the last few years the size of the paddocks and the traditional placing of the strip wire have become obsolete and in larger herd size, especially, the incorrect allocation of grass is putting some cows, including heifers, under pressure. We need to reassess our field and paddock size..

While your cows are eating the feed in the shed or the paddock you are really feeding the rumen or the stomach of the cow. Adding acidic silage at 12% protein or lush grass at 20-30% protein along with concentrates containing a high proportion of grain can be a tough juggling act for the rumen where consistency is required.

Live yeast and rumen buffers should be well known at this point as a way to stabilise the rumen during this time and should be common practice when purchasing feed from feed companies or coops.

Again, like the grass, it’s not just about allocating the cows’ feed its about utilising it. Crows raiding the manure pads in the field for concentrate can be a common occurrence on farms but should be addressed.

It is important to talk to a nutritionist if your system or ingredients has changed somewhat recently or if you are unsure about your current diet or if you are experiencing any metabolic issues. These are very addressable issues but if left unattended can create more deep-rooted issues.

- Seamus Callanan: Alltech Ireland InTouch Feeding Specialist

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