Straw might prove the right ingredient for healthy herd

The extra time and hassle that come with a new dry cow management and feeding programme are well worth it, reckons Andrew Heard.

He made changes to the dry cow programme for his 120 cows, now averaging 9000 litres, at Stoke Rivers, Barnstaple, in April this year.

He is already confident of its benefits and cannot be persuaded to go back to what he did before, despite the extra time it now takes.

The additional time input results from bringing cows indoors for the three to four weeks before calving, having initially put them out to grass at drying off.

But it is easily balanced by the reduced hassle during and after calving, he says.

In winter, dry cows are kept indoors anyway.

On his previous dry cow regime, at peak in summer, three out of 10 cows could be given a bottle of calcium borogluconate for milk fever when they were at grass, supplemented with grass silage and a protein mix.

“Since April, cows have calved easily and there have been no cases of milk fever or downer cows,” he says.

Maiden heifers that have also been on the dry cow programme pre-calving have also calved easily, adds Mr Heard. Despite the use of a Simmental bull, their calves have not been too big.

“I thought calves would grow bigger, but the protein fed is only enough for maintenance and not to make calves grow faster.”

There have been other health benefits, too.

“Cows hold condition much better post-calving.

And there have been no displaced abomasums compared with two last year.”

Mr Heard points out that this and fewer milk fever cases have reduced direct and less visible vet costs.

“It’s not easy to put a price on a case of milk fever, but when a cow doesn’t milk for a few days and then is likely to have a lower yield, it is costly.”

Some of the improvements in milk yield, which has increased by 1000 litres in the last year, are also attributable to dry cow feeding and improved health, although the milking cow rationing has improved, too, he says.

“Cows reach peak yield two to three weeks earlier.”

Mr Heard hopes the all-round improvements in health and yield will see cows last longer and he is also seeing improvements in cows’ feet, with fewer cases of lameness, which should help too.

He is now confident cows will average 10,000 litres within 18 months.

The main change to the dry cow ration is inclusion of a high proportion of chopped wheat straw, after the purchase of a Keenan 140 Klassic mixer wagon that can chop it.

“The idea is to feed straw to get the rumen as big as possible, so cows can eat more post-calving.

And the chopped straw cannot be selected out by cows,” he adds.

“Wheat straw has a better scratch factor than barley straw and is relatively easy to get hold of locally, saving on transport costs.”

This is important now dry cow and milking cow rations mean the annual requirement is 0.75t a cow.

Bedding straw requirements, with cows calving indoors, are also up, he admits.

Mr Heard’s dry cow ration now includes a 50:50 ratio of wheat straw to grass silage on a dry matter basis, plus rolled wheat, hi-pro soya, minerals and magnesium chloride.

It is fed daily as a total mixed ration.

He was initially concerned that cows would eat too much, or too little, compared with being out at grass.

But now he can actually monitor cow intakes and knows exactly what they are eating.

Cows are actually eating 12kg DM daily.

Keenan nutritionist Mark Voss, who devised the ration for the farm, says that providing a ration of about 40% straw in the dry matter, typically 4kg to 5kg, has many benefits.

“It increases the rumen capacity while reducing the energy density of the diet.

It also improves the amount and quality of the cud.”

But Mr Voss stresses that straw must be included as part of a carefully balanced dry cow ration.

And any paper ration needs delivering well on farm, including careful loading and strict mixing times, to realise the full benefits, he adds.

And in winter, when cows are housed, Mr Heard and other farms using the regime have simplified management further, with all dry cows now fed the same ration, says Mr Voss.

This is reducing the housing and labour requirement, compared with feeding two separate groups.

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