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Saturday 16 December 2017

Veterinary: 10 steps to drying off your cows

Drying off cows will yield rewards throughout the year
Drying off cows will yield rewards throughout the year
Tommy Heffernan

Tommy Heffernan

Many dairy farms are now drying off cows. This is a good opportunity for downtime for both cows and farmers, but it also a chance to put in place measures that will reap rewards for the whole year ahead. It is a bit like pre-season training for a sports team.

1 Length of the dry period

Too long a dry period may lead to overfat cows, while too short will not allow cows enough recovery time.

The optimum is around 60 days, but extending it for thinner cows can be a very good way of recovering body condition before calving, especially where group feeding isn't an option.

2 Body condition scoring

This is a key way to optimise performance in cows. It can be done by farmers themselves, by nutritionists, vets or advisors to throw an independent hand and eye on a herd.

Optimal body condition for cows is between (3.0 to 3.25) at calving time.

By assessing this now adjustments can be made on feed quality and quantity. Thin cows at calving are on the back foot for the whole year, production fertility and immunity are all compromised. Equally fat cows suffer with intake issues, milk fever and energy deficits often losing too much weight after calving.

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3 Drying off and cell count

Drying off allows the udder and milk tissues to regenerate. It is an ideal chance to tackle high somatic cell count cows, using milk cultures to find out what bacteria are present and what action to take.

I am a huge advocate of selective dry cow therapy but this must only be done by careful selection and use of milk records over time.

Modern cows really benefit from the use of sealers at drying off to prevent new infections during the dry period.

Make sure you complete the process as carefully and as hygienically as possible. It is really worth watching cows for the first 7-10 days after drying off for mastitis as this tends to be the greatest risk period.

4 Trace element status

I recommend checking the trace element status of 8pc of cows.

Depending on the herd, I look at copper, selenium and iodine on bloods and, when paired with forage trace element analysis, you can make real decisions about optimising supplementing cows during the dry period.

5 Forage analysis

With most herds fed on silage in the dry period it is absolutely critical to know what's in the feed.

For less than €100 we can analyse energy quality, proteins, and macro and micro minerals to avoid energy or metabolic diseases like milk fever.

6 Cow comfort

Although we want to keep our housing period as short as possible, most of the dry period and early calving is done when cows are permanently housed.

Allowing cows to exhibit most of their natural behaviours inside pays dividends when it comes to calving.

So having cows lying and ruminating for up to 14 hours a day minimises stress around calving and will reduce the overall risk of lameness.

7 Assessing lameness

Standing for prolonged periods on concrete when heavy in calf can lead to increased risk of lameness.

Also if cows are lying on concrete we tend to see more issues with hock and leg lesions.

However, the biggest risk of lameness at housing is infectious fouls and digital dermatitis. These can be reduced by improving dry cow hygiene at housing and avoiding having cows standing in slurry.

Regular footbathing also reduces this risk.

8 Parasites

Since drying off and housing are usually done around the same time, it provides an excellent opportunity to assess any parasite burdens in the herd.

At this time of year fluke is a particular risk in some farms, so breaking the cycle by dosing at housing or early in the dry period is a good move.

When you are giving fluke and worm treatments at drying off, make sure you note that you are using licensed products that are appropriate for treatment.

I recommend pooled dung samples from 8-10 thinner cows and a bulk milk screening.

The latter checks for fluke and worm antibodies, and allows us to use a more targeted product.

9 Water and feed space

Do not underestimate the importance of having fresh clean available water for the dry cow. Water is so important in the cow's engine - her rumen - and will need access at all times to plenty of it.

Ideally every cow should also be able to feed at the one time. You can have fantastic forage but if shy heifers or cows are waiting to feed they will suffer.

There should be less than 10pc of cows standing that are not feeding or lying in the shed.

10 Preparing pens

If not already done, pens should be thoroughly cleaned out and disinfected. Many farms had issues with calf scour last year, particularly cryptosporidium, so I recommend powerhosing on day one, steam-cleaning on the second day, and a follow up with a disinfectant like Kilcox Xtra on day three.

As UCD's Eoin Ryan puts it: 'its about the seven Ps - proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance'.

Tommy Heffernan works with the Avondale Veterinary Clinic in Co Wicklow

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