Feeding dairy cows from birth to lactation

Leonard Lang’at feeds his dairy cows at his farm. Lactating cows are fed good quality forage, and dairy meal. photo / nmg

What you need to know:

  • Water and an appropriate mineral supplement usually referred to as a ‘stock lick’ should be available all day.
  • If you are resource-constrained, then, instead of the young stock supplement, simply use one kilogramme of crushed grain per heifer, per day, but you will miss the first insemination target.
  • Also, if you have good quality pasture or fodder, you can do without supplementing your heifers above six months and achieve reasonable growth.

Dairy cows whether exotic, hybrid or crossbred if not taken good care of in terms of feeding, housing and protection against diseases can remain unproductive and prone to diseases dwindling the farmer’s income.

Experts advise that dairy cows especially of 400 kilogrammes should be fed with about 15 kilogrammes of dry matter of fodder.

Feeding costs can be as high as 70 percent of the total cost of production. Profitability in a dairy farming business thus hinges on how well you manage the feeds. Some of the targets that you can work on are:

• Weaning the calf at three months or less to reduce the milk feeding costs.

First insemination of the heifer at 15 months or less so that the first calving time is at 24 months or less. Profitability from a cow is reduced if first calving goes beyond the age of 26 months.

• The average milk production of at least 20 litres per cow per day.

Cattle are fed for maintenance of body weight and for production. If maintenance requirements are not met, the animal will use its body weight to maintain the essential metabolic functions, thus losing weight or milk output. Production is in terms of weight gain or milk yields.

A growing animal should steadily gain at least 500 to 800g per day for you to hit the weaning and insemination targets.

A calf that loses weight will require more time to compensate for the losses. At today’s input costs and milk prices, anyone who wants to do dairy farming as a business should aim at a minimum production level of 20 litres of milk per cow, per day.

This can only be achieved if the cows are well-fed from birth through lactation. Underfed cows will cut down on milk production, using the little nutrients available for maintenance. Here are some suggestions on how best to hit growth and production targets.

Feeding the calf

Calves are fed milk according to their body weight. It is, therefore, necessary to get the weight of the calf at birth then every two weeks thereafter.

Accurate weights are usually obtained from fasting animals, so weigh the calf before feeding it in the morning. Heart girth measurements provide good weight estimates.

Place a tape just behind the front legs of the calf, record the girth in centimetres and convert to weight using standard conversion tables. However, weigh bands are available on the market from which you can read the animal’s weight directly.

These nutrients can be supplied from milk fed at the rate of 10 percent of their body weight per day.

Feeding the heifer

At the age of six months, switch to a cheaper young stock supplement (at the rate of one to two kilogrammes per day depending on the condition of the animal and the quality of pasture or fodder) up to the age of 12 months.

Water and an appropriate mineral supplement usually referred to as a ‘stock lick’ should be available all day. If you are resource-constrained, then, instead of the young stock supplement, simply use one kilogramme of crushed grain per heifer, per day, but you will miss the first insemination target. Also, if you have good quality pasture or fodder, you can do without supplementing your heifers above six months and achieve reasonable growth.

Watch the body condition of the heifers from 12 months on. Overfeeding can result in over-fat heifers with reduced conception rates.

Insemination

Inseminate the heifer when it is three quarters the average adult weight for its breed. For example, for breeds that average 400 kilogrammes adult cow weight, first insemination can be when they weigh 300 kilogrammes.

It might, therefore, be necessary to delay first service to second or third heat for underfed, slow growing heifers.

Feeding the in-calf heifer

Conception after insemination depends on how well the heifer is fed. Underfed heifers are likely not to show any signs of heat, and may fail to conceive at first service.

Heifers that conceive can be maintained on pasture or cut fodder with the young stock supplement at one to two kilogrammes per day and an adequate mineral supplementation to cater for the growth of the heifer herself and the calf she is carrying. In the third trimester of pregnancy, the supplement for heifers can be changed to dairy meal.

Steaming up of in-calf heifers and cows

Steaming up is the practice of feeding high amounts of dairy meal to the cows and heifers before calving. This is done during the last six and eight weeks before calving respectively for cows and heifers. The purpose of steaming up is to:

•Provide nutrients to meet the demands of pregnancy. The highest rate of development of the calf, embryonic and mammary tissue take place in the last trimester of pregnancy, hence nutrient requirements by the cows and heifers are high at this time.

•Ensure a healthy calf at birth that is more resistant to diseases and grows faster.

•Provide more nutrients to meet the heavy demand of the coming lactation.

• Stimulate the development of the udder in heifers and replenishing (refurbishing) of the udder in cows.

Feeding the lactating heifer

Lactating cows are fed good quality fodder/forage, and dairy meal at the rate of one kilogramme dairy meal for every 1.5 litres milk produced above five kilogrammes.

If the quality of forage is poor, you will need to give more dairy meal, but do not exceed 40 per cent of the total feed intake per day. This of course will raise your cost of milk production, eating into your profits.


Dr Lusweti is an animal nutritionist and a senior principal research officer, Kalro


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