Brian Reidy: Why you should think about bringing your cows in now

Brian Reidy: Why you should think about bringing your cows in now

Having cows in by night will make sure that less damage is done in wetter weather, but it will also allow herds on dryer ground to stay out by day for much longer into the winter.

After the July and August summer dry spell (or drought depending on where in the country you are), we now have a nice settled spell of weather after the badly needed rain.

The ground is in great order, and grass growth has been excellent recently. Many recently reported growth rates in the 60s and 70s, which is impressive for mid-September.

At this point, there is very little silage to be made. Many third cuts were grazed over the last few weeks, and for some, this means that winter reserves are tight. 

I saw some grass mowed earlier this week, but it won’t amount to a lot, either volume or quality-wise, at this stage. Now that all of the silage is in, you should start to plan which cuts go to what groups and figure out if you have enough. Those with autumn calvers and/or higher performing herds will also be waiting on Beet and Maize harvests to complete their feed supply.

Feeding the cow to maintain performance

In my opinion, particularly at this time of year, there is far too much emphasis on managing grass and not enough emphasis on the cow. This was never more apt, given the current price being paid for milk and the potential margins achievable.

All Irish dairy herds use grass in one form or another as the base forage to produce milk. However, right now, the system of using cheap fertiliser to produce cheap grass is under pressure with the current and future fertiliser prices; land, labour and fertiliser costs are now major limitations in the low-input low-output system.

Over the last few weeks, even during the good weather, many herds have benefited from the introduction of good quality forage to complement grazing. Autumn grass is inherently low in dry matter, and once we get into September, it is very difficult to maintain intakes capable of holding milk yields.

This very much holds true when growths are very good, which will mean grass dry matters are even lower. Many have even concluded that the best thing to do is to begin keeping cows in by night from now on.

Why, you say? For the cows, it’s down to increased intakes, maintaining body condition and keeping yields and solids up.

Having cows in by night will make sure that less damage is done in wetter weather, but it will also allow herds on dryer ground to stay out by day for much longer into the winter. 

Driving intakes will drive performance, and if cows are dropping off in yield and solids, then they are not getting fed enough. It’s a simple mathematical equation, energy in means energy out.

Late lactation nutrition

Something that must be left in the past is the management of the late lactation cow as if quotas still existed. Why is it acceptable for cows to freewheel to dry-off while milking much less than they are capable of?

Fixed costs per cow remain the same, so why not dilute them? With this in mind, milk solids and milk yield, along with grass supply, silage quality and body condition, should determine the nutrition management required at this time of year. 

This should involve a cost-effective balanced diet that supplies nutrients which are deficient in autumn grass, it should have a high energy content, effective fibre to provide structure in the rumen, and the aim must be to complement the grass available. Maintaining performance and an appropriate body condition must be the focus.

Feeding fresh autumn cows

With most autumn calving at an advanced stage, it is now very important to focus on the feeding of the fresh calvers and to monitor performance carefully. 

Fresh cows really should be kept indoors by night at this stage to make sure that the correct dry matter intakes are being achieved; they really have no business out by night as overall intakes will not be acceptable to support the fresh cow's genetic potential. 

This will make it easier to monitor intake and performance. Fresh cows given an appropriate feeding regime before they are moved to full-time winter housing will find the transition to full indoor feeding much easier and get to optimum production quicker. These fresh calvers need to be getting up to 75% of their Dry Matter indoors if they are currently out at grass by day. 

Obviously, if grazing conditions become difficult, then you really must keep cows indoors at night at a minimum to get the required feed intakes. This strategy will for sure have a positive influence on fertility performance in this group of cows later in the year.

Monitoring performance

In both spring and autumn groups, you must monitor body condition closely at this time of year.

The power has gone out of grass, and cows can lose significant condition quickly before you notice it.

Assessing dry matter intakes and measuring milk production will ensure that action can be taken, where needed, to adjust the diet.

Introducing Good quality silage, maize silage, whole crop or beet to buffer grass will increase total dry matter intakes.

Milk protein is a good barometer of the cow’s current energy balance. The diet from seven to 10 days ago is what influences today's milk protein.

Reading cow manure is useful in assessing diet performance, (undigested fibre and grains, colour and consistency).

Ensure target dry matter intakes are being achieved. Dairy cows should be consuming 3-3.5% of their own body weight in Dry Matter. This will obviously be closer to 3% as they enter late lactation and become heavier in-calf.

  • Brian Reidy is an independent ruminant nutritionist at Premier Farm Nutrition.

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