Getting the best from dairy cows in August

The average spring-calved cow in Ireland is only about 175-180 days into her lactation, so is a bit off late lactation yet, independent ruminant nutritionist Brian Reidy writes.
Getting the best from dairy cows in August

A drop-off in lactose is a good indication that cows are not utilising sufficient energy

Apart from all the climate change doom and gloom, there is still the positive of the farm gate milk price continuing to rise.

So what needs to be focused on by dairy producers over the coming weeks?

Depending on your production system, you will be looking at tasks such as maintaining herd performance, autumn fertiliser plans, reseeding, third-cut silage, scanning, monitoring heifer performance, winter feed budgeting, harvesting of crops, autumn calving, and many more.

Autumn grass and cow performance

Keeping spring cows milking well must be high on the agenda as they still have a long way to go before drying off.

It has not been uncommon to hear reports of herds dropping off by three or four litres in a week. However, this is never an acceptable yield drop. 

Grass growth has been poor recently, and energy and protein have not been what you would expect. Low proteins depress intake and reduce energy available to the cow for milk production. Cows dropping off in milk simply because they are back in-calf is not the reason and should never be accepted as an excuse.

Autumn grass, at the best of times, can be a bit of a mystery as it can be feeding very well one day, and all of a sudden loses its power. 

This issue occurs every year and is caused by more than one thing in my experience: The age of the sward, soil fertility, fertiliser application and weather all have an influence on the grass and what nutrients are available from it. 

Bounces in growth after rain are very welcome. However, if we get rapid growth, the grass dry matters will dramatically decrease, and most swards will then be between 14 and 16% Dry Matter.

In this scenario, cows will graze through grass very fast. Grass allocation must obviously be done based on dry matter, not fresh feed available, so recalibrating yourself to allow for a bigger area to get the appropriate dry matter into your cows each day will be needed. 

This will be a big adjustment, as in the last few weeks, grass has been 19 to 21% dry matter due to slow growth and moisture deficits.

This issue may very well account for a further drop-off in yields, where cows are simply not being allocated enough grass dry matter, or are not capable of consuming sufficient dry matter to maintain yields Looking after each cow in the herd.

Feed to yield

Consider how the better milkers and heifers in the herd are being catered for as grass dry matter drops. 

Is extra supplementation required to bridge the gap, and should that come from introducing some conserved forage or from additional parlour feed? Is feeding to yield or individually possible? More producers are investing in parlour feed to yield systems, and I am all in favour of this approach.

Remember that this system will almost never reduce your feed bill, as you were already feeding based on the average cow.

What feed to yield will allow you to do, though, is produce more milk from the same amount of concentrates. The cows who deserve it will get it, and the cows that don’t deserve it, won’t.

It will also allow you to look after heifers individually while also helping to adjust body condition in individual cows too. This system is also ideal when calving as it can be used to increase safely and optimise dry matter intake in the fresh cows and heifers automatically.

Herd performance indicators

Any dramatic drops in milk yield, protein, butter fat and lactose are indications that your herd are not receiving and/or digesting sufficient energy to maintain performance. Increases in SCC can also be linked to nutritive stress.

The milk solid percentages in your herd will be influenced by milk yields, and as such, we really must convert figures to kilos of milk solids before we begin to make comparisons from cow to cow and herd to herd. 

A higher volume herd may have slightly lower solids percentage-wise, remember that everyone supplying the same buyer receives the same price per kilo of milk solids. 

A drop-off in lactose is a good indication that cows are not utilising sufficient energy, and this should be addressed quickly to avoid subsequent milk volume and protein percentage from dropping. It is too early in the year to be talking about lactose dropping due to the late lactation effect.

The average spring-calved cow in Ireland is only about 175-180 days into her lactation, so is a bit off late lactation just yet!

Keeping the lactation curve up

As mentioned above, herds still have a good way to go before they get to the end of their lactation. Assess your herd's energy requirements and feed accordingly once you have optimised grass intake.

Don’t accept a drop-off in milk of more than 1.5-2% per week. The prospects are good for milk price for the remainder of the year, make sure you position your herd to take advantage of this.

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