Caring for Dry Cows and Promoting Healthy Calvings on a Micro Dairy

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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Dry cow management can be difficult on a small herd dairy for many reasons.  However proper management of dry cows is essential for successful calving.  Traditionally cows are dried off (stopped being milked) 60 days prior to their projected calving date.  Many people new to managing cows are flustered by the idea of drying a cow off and have many ideas about how to best accomplish that with a cow.  Some folks speculate that cows should be dried off slowly over a period of time and may milk a cow they are drying off once a day to begin with or perhaps every other day for a few days.  But after 50 years of drying cows off I am convinced that the best way to dry cows off is to just stop milking the cow and not to milk her again until after she calves.  When you stop milking a cow she will naturally continue to make milk and her udder will swell.  That is good.  It is the pressure that builds up in the udder that sends a signal to the mammary glands in her udder to stop producing milk.  If you relieve that pressure by milking her out occasionally you reduce the pressure and the mammary glands are sent the wrong signal.  I think it is much better to just let the cow’s udder swell so she knows to stop making milk.  A simple way to help a cow reduce milk production is to reduce her water intake to the levels required by a dry cow, rather than a milking cow.  Milking cows will drink 20 to 25 gallons of water per day, depending upon the water content of their feed or pasture.  Dry cows will drink up to ten gallons per day.  But if you are trying to dry off a cow you could give her five to eight gallons of water per day for a day or two.  

True, the cow’s teats may leak and drip milk for a couple of days or perhaps longer after you stop milking her but that is why it is very important to keep a dry cow in a clean and dry setting.  And if you become worried about the leaking opening the door to mastitis then dip the cow from time to time.  But, believe me, the sooner the udder can swell the sooner the cow will stop producing milk and the quicker the udder will shrink, as the left over milk is reabsorbed by the cow.

The nutritional needs of a dry cow are much different than the needs of a cow that is milking. Before any cow is dried off she should be in good condition with fat on her bones, but not too much.  Her body score should be 3.5 to 4.  In that case a dry cow should be exclusively fed a medium to good quality 1st cut long stem hay until two weeks prior to her calving date.  or you could keep her on a overly mature dry pasture. That will help her rumen get in shape for milk production after the cow calves.  Do not feed her any grain during this period or give her access to lush pasture.  That means you will have to keep your dry cow/s separated from your milking cows.

Do all you can to prevent your dry cows from becoming fat or over conditioned.  Though feeding them grain and/or good hay or lush pasture may seem like the kind thing to do it isn’t.  It may lead to serious health problems after the cow calves, such as milk fever and ketosis. If cows are too fat when they calve they may not have the appetite required to eat enough feed to keep up with their nutritional needs.  Instead they may just be content to utilize the fat on their backs which is a sure way for them to develop Ketosis and in rare cases Nervous or crazy Ketosis which can be very traumatic for the cow and the farmer. 

Two weeks before your cow is due to calves is the time to start to “lead feed” them.  That means slowly introducing them to the feeds they will be fed after they calve.  Always introduce cows to new rations slowly.  Cows have very sensitive metabolisms and it doesn’t take much to “throw them off”.  It is critical to meet the cows nutritional needs during the last two weeks of their pregnancy.  During that time the calf inside her may double in size so make sure she has the feed she needs to keep up with the growth of her calf.  Your cow will not get fat when you are lead feeding her during the last two weeks of her pregnancy.  Just make sure you don’t introduce too much good feed to quickly.  Let the cow get used to the new ration.

Dry cow management on large farms is easier because those farms usually have dry cow pens, or even dry cow barns or dry cow pastures where the dry cows can be easily segregated from the milk cows so they receive the proper dry cow rations.  In many cases Micro Dairies, or small herd dairies do not have separate pens, barns and or pastures they can devote to dry cows. And cows hate to be alone and separated from their herd.  So if you only have one dry cow, keeping her separated from the milking cows can be a challenge.  But it is a challenge you have to meet if you want your dry cows to calve out successfully.  Good luck!

 In 1991, Judge created the Vermont Family Farms brand of fluid milk in partnership with Vermont Milk Producers, Inc. This co-operative aimed to develop a new and innovative way to bring farm-fresh milk to the market. You can read all of Steve’s postshere.

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