Drying Off Your Milk Cow

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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Every dairy farmer has an opinion about how best to “dry off” cows when it is time for them to take a vacation in preparation for having their next calf.  And they are probably all correct!  Because I manage a company that sells dairy equipment and supplies, inexperienced cow owners routinely ask me how to dry off (or as they put it sometimes “dry up”) a cow.

To be clear – I am not a vet nor do I have any formal training in cow care. But after milking cows for 40+ years this is how I dry a cow off and it works for me.  When the time comes, I just stop milking her and keep my eye on her. I stopped dry treating my cows years ago because I came to the conclusion that doing so causes more mastitis than it prevents. Nor do I milk my dry cows out half way for a few days after I stop milking them. I just let the pressure in their udders build up because that pressure is what sends the signal to a cow’s mammary glands in her udder to stop making milk. The pressure is a good thing.  If you relieve it intermittently you just confuse the issue.  Her udder should start to calm down in a week or so after you stop milking her.  If, in the meantime, she begins to leak milk just keep an eye on her and keep her bedding, udder and teats clean and dry. You can dip her as you would a milking cow. Just try not to bonk her udder as you do, because that may stimulate her to let down and milk herself out.  If she does be sure to keep her bedding dry.

Occasionally, when it is practical, I will limit the water intake of a cow I am drying off for a few days after I stop milking her. Cows that aren’t milking don’t need more than ten gallons of water per day or a five-gallon bucket morning and night. Back in the old days, before water bowls, that’s generally how much water milking cows in New England were given per day when they were “barned up” for the winter. They didn’t make much milk but they survived. Without water bowls, water had to be carried in buckets to the cows in their stalls, hopefully from a spring that flowed into the barn or milk house so the water didn’t have to be carried bucket by bucket from the house, as my wife and I did for a couple of winters 40 years ago at our first farm. 

Most importantly, immediately stop feeding grain, silage or second cut hay to dry cows, even if you feel sorry for them when you feed your other cows. Feed them a ration of long stem first cut dry hay. It is good for their rumens. Also try to keep dry cows off good pasture, regardless of the time of year, for the same reason.  That is one of the challenges of managing a small herd of cows.  With a larger herd you usually have several dry cows at the same time that can keep each other company on a played out pasture.  Most cows hate to be alone so keeping a single cow segregated is more difficult. Just do the best you can to keep your cows from getting fat or over conditioned before or during their dry period.  Fat cows run the risk of developing metabolic conditions such as Ketosis, or worse yet, “Nervous Ketosis” after they calve. Do some research and learn about cow body scoring.  A dry cow’s body score should be between 3.5 and 4.  When I see a fat dry cow I envision $600 plus vet bills when she calves due to the potential of heath problems caused by her being “over conditioned”.  Fat cows also may not have the appetite they require to eat the large amount of feed their bodies need to keep up with the large amounts of milk they can make when they are fresh.  In that case cows can start to metabolize too much of their own body fat, which can lead to Ketosis.

If you are new at managing dry cows, study up on Milk Fever and Ketosis.  Be prepared for both. Consult your veterinarian and develop a plan for dealing with Milk Fever, especially if you have a Jersey or Jerseys.  Give him or her a heads up when you think your cow is going to calve.  Large calcium boluses have recently come onto the market that are very effective for preventing milk fever if given to the cow at the right time.  I have recently begun to use them with good success.

Also, consult with your vet or nutritionist about supplements or minerals your cows may benefit from during their dry period.  Just remember medium quality long stem first cut dry hay is the best ration for dry cows. I also avoid giving dry cows and bred heifers salt as it may cause their udders to swell with unwanted edema that may be painful for them and make them difficult to milk, especially if you milk by hand.  Simply another reason to keep your dry cows and “close-up” heifers segregated from your milking cows.

Finally keep your dry cows and bred heifers clean.  Don’t let manure build up on their flanks, udders and legs.  And keep their housing clean, dry and well bedded.  If your cow is going to calve in a pen make sure it is squeaky clean and well bedded.  When weather permits I prefer to have my cows calve on pasture in the company of other cows who can act as nurses.

Enjoy your cows and good luck!

Photos by Steve Judge

Steven A. Judge of Royalton, Vermont has been involved with the dairy industry for 45 years as a farm hand, farm owner, farm manager, and marketing entrepreneur.  In 2001, Steve purchased and brought back to life an abandoned 40-acre farm in Royalton, Vermont where he now lives with his wife Wendy and milks four Jersey cows.  In 2006, working out of his farm house, Steve founded Bob-White Systems Inc. an innovative internet business that sells milking and milk handling equipment  to smaller sustainable, community based dairies all across the US. 

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