How to identify and overcome common cow issues in the dry period

A leading expert on cow management believes on most farms there is a failure in the transition period, with almost 65% of problems occurring in the dry cow/fresh cow period.

Dairy vet Gordie Jones, who is also a partner in the 3,400-cow Central Sands Dairy, Wisconsin, USA, says when cows enter the dry period, it’s often a case of them having too much or too little of something.

The result is problems such as milk fever, displaced abomasums and in some cases the culling of cows prematurely.

However, he believes a good dry cow programme will stop this.

Quite often, dry cow diets are being asked to solve all of the issues relating to problems in the dry period, when generally the issue lies not with the feed itself but with the feed bunk management and cow comfort.

He believes solving issues in these areas will result in immediate payback due to extra milk produced in the fresh period.

See also: How to feed dry cows to prevent negative protein balance 

Speaking at an event organised by Davidsons Animal Feeds, Dr Jones outlines how to troubleshoot  bottlenecks in the dry period.

How to troubleshoot? 

Observe what cows do in a 24-hour period:

  • How long do they stand away from food?
  • How often do they spend sleeping and drinking?
  • When do you deliver food?/li>
  • Is there a change in their behaviour when you feed or bed up?
  • Are they perching?
  • How long does it take them to lie down?

Common problems 

Answering these questions will often throw up where the issues lie.  

Dr Jones says one of the biggest things he sees when visiting dairy farms is concrete in the trough in the morning.

“The single biggest failure is not getting enough feed in the cows in the morning. If you can see concrete in the trough before midday then your cows have failed to get their last bite of feed.

“Cows will eat until they are full and then sleep. If they were unable to get their last bite because the trough was empty then you have instantly lost 2.5 litres of milk.  

“You never want to have hungry cows [both dry and milking cows]. If you find the behaviour of your cows change when you go in and feed them [ie, they all get up to feed], then you have hungry cows,” he explains.


  • Cows should be sleeping for 20 hours a day and should have no more than four hours away from sleeping
  • They also need more than 50% of their dry matter intake in the morning as cows are dawn/dusk creatures (crepuscular)
  • Each cow should have 0.5m of defined space at the feed bunk and water trough
  • There should be at least a 4m gap between the feed/water trough and cubicles, enabling cows to pass
  • Dry cows and fresh cows should have five feeding spaces for every four cows (80% stocking density).

Cow groups and comfort 

How cow numbers dictate social groups

  • If you have more than 120 cows in the dry group then you need to make sure there’s more feed and water space as they will establish two social groups
  • Less than 120 cows then there will just be one social group
  • Between 120 and 250 cows and they will establish two social groups
  • Whereas with more than 250 cows there will be no social hierarchy
  • Heifers should be run as a separate group due to bullying

Are cows comfortable? The telltale signs

Cow comfort is also paramount to encourage sleeping and rumination. This means offering at least 4in of bedding on top of a mattress.

Again, Dr Jones says if cows change their behaviour after they have been bedded up (for instance, more are lying down after bedding up) then they are not comfortable and need bedding up more frequently.

A telltale sign cows are not comfortable is if they are standing about.

6 take-home messages

  1. Make sure cows are comfortable by providing at least 4in of bedding.
  2. Offer adequate feed and water space – 2ft of space a cow as minimum
  3. Make sure the feed trough is never empty in the morning – “you should not be able to see concrete in the trough before midday”
  4. Feed a low-energy, high-fibre diet in the dry period
  5. Feed one diet to fresh and milking cows
  6. Operate a dry period of six weeks as minimum

A cow should only be standing to milk, eat and drink and then lay down again.

If she’s standing and not doing any of these things then there is a problem.

For every extra hour they are laying down in the milking herd, it’s an extra 2 litres of milk in the tank.

The Goldilocks diet 

Once you know that you are offering enough food, they have adequate feed and water space and are comfortable, then you can focus on the diet.

Dr Jones recommends only feeding one diet throughout the dry period, which should be a low-energy, high-fibre diet.

He terms it “the Goldilocks diet” as it provides just the right amount of nutrition.

The idea is to encourage dry cows to get their energy needs by eating more, which means when they go fresh, they will have trained their bodies to eat more in the dry period and milk let-down will drive their intakes.

“You want the fresh cow to be looking for feed when she calves,” he explains.

The Goldilocks diet should contain:

  • More than 50% forage
  • No more than 3.6kg of corn silage
  • 2-3.5kg dry straw (high quality, low energy and chopped short)
  • Crude protein 13.5-15.5%
  • At least 1,200g of metabolisable protein 
  • Neutral detergent fibre 40-50%
  • Phosphorous 40g
  • Calcium 125-150g (1.2%)
  • Magnesium >0.36% (0.40)
  • Potassium as low as possible
  • Magnesium to potassium ration 1:4

“Most dairies have a goal of 4%-6% displaced abomasums [DAs], but with these low-energy, high-fibre dry cow diets, less than 1% is achievable and is what we are achieving at Central Sands,” he says.

Often when these diets fail, Dr Jones says it’s as a result of particle lengths being too long, which allows sorting.

Poor-quality forages – too high in fibre or too low in protein – can also be a problem.

Mould and mycotoxins are also things to look out for.

Troubleshooting: common problems



Too much energy in the ration

16.5 Mega cal

Cows too fat or too thin

2.5-3 BCS

Too much time in the dry pen or too little

Six weeks ideal, but no less


2ft a cow at the feed trough

Inadequate dry matter intake

11-13kgs a day DMI

Not enough fibre in the diet


Poor levels of cow comfort

At least 4in of bedding on top of mattresses. Perching indicates the neck rail is too short. If it takes a cow longer than two to three minutes to lie down then there is something wrong with the bedding