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Evaluating forage options for dry cows

Noah Litherland

Published in Dairy Star February 14, 2009

Dry cow nutrition might not be the first thing on your mind given current challenges facing the dairy industry. However, proper dry cow nutrition is critically important to improve success in early lactation. Cows fed appropriately during the dry period transition more smoothly, have fewer health problems, and are more productive. It is important to develop a dry cow diet(s) based on a sound forage program. Most successful dry cow diets consist of approximately 70 to 80% forages; thus, nutrients contributions from forages (excesses or deficiencies) partly dictate the success of dry cow diets. No single forage is ideal for dry cows; therefore, a mix of forages is needed to meet nutrient requirements in a total mixed ration. Dry cow nutrient requirements are quite different from lactating cows; therefore, a unique look at forage options is warranted.

A variety of forage options exist (see Table) including corn silage, alfalfa, wheat straw, cool season grasses, sorghum, and corn stalks. Optimal forages for dry cows should:

  1. Be moderate in energy density
  2. Low in potassium
  3. Be palatable
  4. Be processed adequately to minimize sorting
  5. Be free of negative nutritional factors such as mold
  6. Provide consistent quality
  7. Provide bulk/fill in the rumen

Feeding diets that prevent dry cows from over-consuming energy appears to be advantageous in reducing a number of health problems in fresh cows. One of the challenges to feeding dry cows is to avoid over-consumption of energy. Dry cows do a poor job of moderating energy intake and will often eat in excess of nutrient requirements predisposing them to metabolic disorders such as ketosis, fatty liver, and associated disorders. Combinations of forages that contribute to moderate energy diets (0.60 Mcal/lb NEL) are advantageous. Forages that are high in potassium and other cations (positively charged minerals such as calcium and sodium) tend to cause hypocalcemia and milk fever.

Forages must be palatable and readily consumed with minimal sorting. If cows aggressively sort forages in favor of concentrate or finer particles, then the result is consumption of a diet that is more nutrient dense than that which was intended. Dry cow forages must be free of mold. Mold may reduce the efficiency of immune function increasing susceptibility to mastitis and metritis after calving. Forages that provide consistent quality are ideal as they contribute to uniform feed mixing and result in more consistent intake. Finally, forages that provide good rumen fill or bulk may be advantageous as they maintain muscular tone and volume in the rumen, maintain feeding and rumination behavior, and may reduce the incidence of displaced abomasum after calving.

Table 1. Forage options for dry cows including some advantages and disadvantages of each forage and general feeding recommendations. (Nutrient estimates are taken from the Dairy One forage library. Nutrient composition of forages should be confirmed with appropriate sampling and laboratory analysis).

Forage Advantage for dry cows Disadvantages for dry cows General feeding recommendation
Corn silage
  • Excellent palatability
  • Low protein 8%
  • Low potassium 1.1%
  • Low calcium 0.25%
  • High energy 0.7 Mcal/lb
  • High starch 30%
  • Low bulk
Limit to less than 50% of forage dry matter due to energy and dry matter content.
Alfalfa hay
  • Moderate moisture 60%
  • Moderate energy 0.61 Mcal/lb
  • Moderate fill factor
  • Minimal sorting (palatable)
  • High crude protein 21%
  • High potassium 2.8%
  • High calcium 1.4%
Limit to less than 30-50% of forage dry matter due to high protein and calcium and potassium content
Wheat straw
  • Low energy 0.3 Mcal/lb
  • Excellent bulk 74% NDF
  • Palatable
  • Consistent
  • Low calcium 0.34%
  • Low potassium 1.4%
  • Low moisture 8%
  • Processing challenges
  • Sorting issues
Limit to less than 30% of forage dry matter due to palatability and sorting problems and excessive dilution of other ingredients
Grass hay
  • Low moisture 10%
  • Moderate crude protein 11%
  • Moderate NEL
  • High fill factor (NDF) 60%
  • Moderate calcium 0.5%
  • High potassium 2.0%+
  • Higher energy than straw
  • More digestible than straw
  • More rapid rate of passage than straw
  • Potential for sorting
Limit to less than 30% of forage dry matter due to mineral content. Orchard grass is typically high in potassium while Timothy is lower in potassium.
Sorghum silage
  • Adds moisture 70%
  • Moderate energy 0.53 Mcal/lb
  • Moderate starch 10%
  • Low protein 9.5%
  • Low calcium 0.5%
  • High potassium 1.9%
  • Lower digestibility
Limit to 50% of forage dry matter due to energy and dry matter content.
Corn stalks
  • Low energy 0.36 Mcal/lb
  • Low starch 5%
  • Moderate calcium 0.5%
  • Moderate potassium 1.3%
  • Excellent bulk 71% NDF
  • High ash 8.6%
  • Processing challenges
  • Sorting challenges
  • Beware of mold
Limit to less than 20% of forage dry matter due to palatability and sorting problems and excessive dilution of other ingredients
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