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Top 10 strategies to improve early lactation performance for higher peak milk yield

Noah Litherland

Dairy Nutritionist
April 29, 2011

Getting cows off to a good start and successful navigation through early lactation is critical to the health and performance of the cow and has significant impact on reproductive performance and cow profitability. Peak milk is defined as the highest recorded test day milk production in a cow's first 150 days in milk (DIM) and has historically been used as a benchmark to determine the success of dry period and early lactation nutrition and management. Peak milk production is an indication of how well the cow responded to feeding management during the dry period, calving, and early lactation periods.

Most cows achieve peak milk by 45 to 90 DIM and then slowly lose production over time. It is commonly cited that each pound of additional peak milk forecasts 200 to 250 pounds more milk for the entire lactation. Understanding how nutrition and management during the transition period impacts cow performance does not have to be complicated. Interactions of nutrition and metabolic and other health disorders in early lactation that impact peak milk are demonstrated in Figure 1. For example, the Risk, Low Dietary Fiber diet/sorting, can lead to Rumen Acidosis, which can result in Lameness or Displaced Abomasum, either of which can cause Reduced Peak Milk.

Here are my "top 10" strategies for improved early lactation performance and higher peak milk yield:

  1. Get cows off to a good start with a successful dry period. Research over the past ten years has clearly demonstrated the impact of dry period nutrition and management on postpartum health and performance. If you are dissatisfied with milk cow performance, then evaluate the dry cow program. Key goals for dry cows include: maintain dry matter intake (DMI) (28 to 32 lb per day), avoid overfeeding energy, prevent BCS gain, optimize comfort, and address hoof health.
  2. Reduce the risk of subclinical milk fever (low blood calcium or hypocalcemia) during the first week of lactation. Low blood calcium (< 8.0 mg/dL) is correlated with ketosis, elevated somatic cell count, delayed uterine involution, metritis, depressed feed intake, and reduced milk yield.
  3. Optimize feed intake immediately after calving. Provide: 10 to 15 gallons of warm water with drinkable drench, access to fresh TMR, 5 to 10 lb of alfalfa/grass hay, and maintain cleanliness and freshness at the feed bunk.
  4. Optimize cow comfort. In the fresh cow group: stocking density at 80 to 85% of capacity, 14 to 21 days in fresh cow group, bunk space 30 to 36 inches per cow, minimize social stress (especially for 1st calf heifers), prevent isolation situations where cows are separated from normal herd mates. Invest in cow cooling for dry and lactating cows.
  5. Maintain rumen health/prevent ruminal acidosis. Provide a flake of alfalfa/grass hay for the first 5 days after calving, early lactation diet should contain plenty of good quality digestible fiber (31 to 35% NDF), maintain fiber mat with consistent feed intake and avoid empty bunks, provide free choice buffer, and monitor buffer intake. Minimize the risk of slug feeding or diet sorting that may result in rumen acidosis (low rumen pH; sour stomach).
  6. Identify cows with a history of metabolic or health problems. Cows that have a history of milk fever, ketosis or mastitis are likely to be repeat offenders. Added attention to cows with a predisposition towards health problems will allow you to do some preventative maintenance. An example would be moving cows carrying twins or first calf heifers into the dry group early as data indicates a correlation with a 7 to 10 day earlier calving date.
  7. Evaluate body condition score (BCS). New industry recommendations suggest a target BCS of 3.0 at calving vs. the previous recommendation of 3.5. The concept behind this recommendation is to avoid cows that are in the "4+" category. A lower BCS at calving allows for 0.5 to 1.0 units of BCS within herd variation as a safety margin to avoid overweight cows that have a higher risk for ketosis, fatty liver, and are often more difficult to breed back.
  8. Position feed additives. The fresh cow group has the most potential to offer a return on investment for feed additives. Independent research supports the following additives: ionophores (increased glucose availability), choline (improves liver health and function), protected amino acids (meet amino acid requirements without over-feeding protein), supplemental protected fat (increases energy intake), and yeast culture (stabilizes rumen fermentation).
  9. Avoid anti-nutritional factors such as feeds containing mold, wild yeast, and poorly fermented feeds. Mold counts > 100,000 colonies per gram likely decrease feed intake and diet digestibility.
  10. Feed correct amounts of antioxidants. Antioxidants (vitamin E and selenium) help reduce the impact of oxidative stress (examples include: excessive fat mobilization, poor air quality, disease and injury/lameness), which decreases the efficiency of immune system function.

Figure 1. Relationships among pre-calving risk factors and post calving results.

Relationships among pre-calving risk factors and post calving results
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