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Dairy cow nutrition management

Dairy cow nutrition management: 3 steps for a healthy herd

Dairy cow nutrition management: 3 steps for a healthy herd



Dairy cow nutrition is simple. The better you take care of them, the better they will produce for you in return!

To make sure you are meeting the nutrient requirements of your cattle, you’ll need to consider three main parts: 

  • Nutrient makeup of the feed
  • Changing seasons 
  • Lactation cycles feeding schedules 

This guide will take you through all three so that you can plan your dairy cow nutrition management throughout the year. 


Major nutrient components of a dairy cow feed

The nutrient requirements of dairy cattle are basically split into maintenance and growth.

Maintenance is the bare minimum required for cows to function. They require more for functions such as milk production, reproduction, and growth. 

Beyond the energy and protein required for dairy cow maintenance, there are three major components in cattle feed that provide energy:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fat
  • Protein 

Energy in cattle feed is calculated from the dry matter they consume. In other words, how much metabolisable energy (ME) is in their food after you take out the water content. 

The energy content from these components in feed, as well as added trace minerals, will determine whether it is used for maintenance or optimal function and growth. 

  •  Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, AKA sugars, are the primary energy source for dairy cows. 

They make up approximately 75% of all dry matter in cattle feed

Dairy cows digest all sugars in the same way in the rumen, however different types of carbohydrates can create different results. For example, feeds high in starch (e.g. maize grain) turns into propionate during digestion which results in higher milk protein and volume

  • Protein

Dairy cows require protein for functions such as lactating, reproducing and growing. 

It is not measured in the same way you would measure protein in your own diet. Instead, protein calculations are based on how much nitrogen there is in cattle feed. This is also known as Crude Protein

Cows do not store protein naturally so it is important for them to get this through their diet, however they can transform excess nitrogen supplies back into a usable source when needed.

  • Fat

Fats, or “lipids” are much more energy dense than the other forms of energy in cattle feed. 

If a cow is in an energy deficit, they can use stores for energy. 

However, dairy cows are not very efficient at metabolising fats and an excess in their feed can lead to a build up in their liver, which leads to reduced production and potential future metabolic conditions. 

It is recommended that no more than 2-3% of supplementary fats are added to the diet, and fats should only make up around 3-4% of dry matter in total to avoid interrupting rumen function. 


Feed management throughout the seasons

Dairy cow diets cycle through the seasons. Dry cow feed requirements will shift depending on where they are in their lactation cycle, pasture allocation, and dry matter energy requirements. 

  •  Early spring feed management 

From September to November, dairy cow diets accommodate the beginning of calving season. 

You will need to make the most of pastures while the milking herd is growing and the dry herd is shrinking. In early spring, you will be managing pasture allocations to accommodate the beginning of the calving season. This means making the most of pastures while the milking herd is growing and the dry herd is shrinking. Your colostrum cows come first! 

Feed intake and milk production will be at its highest 4-10 weeks after cows have given birth. This means that cow feed allocation needs to accommodate post-calving intake. 

  • Late spring feed management

Late spring is the end of the September to November season. In this time period, cattle feed focuses on surplus management. 

At this time of the year, it is critical to provide high quality feed for your dairy cow diet. An unmanaged pasture surplus could lead to an overproduction of ryegrass growth, which lowers the quality of your pastures and therefore your yield. 

For a good clover-ryegrass balance, rotation cycles should be between 16-26 days in springtime, with grazing ideally at the three leaf stage.

  • Summer feed management

The dry December to February months means keeping an eye on weather services. As well as this, you will need to consider your dairy cows’ body condition score in anticipation of the next season. 

Cow feed supplementation can keep milking cows in production longer than they normally would during the summer season. 

When planning your quality cow feed supplies to supplement feeding in summer, ask yourself:

  • Do I have the facilities to store any excess food without wastage? 
  • Do I have enough to keep cows going for 14 days after rain to allow pastures to regrow after pasture decay? 
  • Is there sufficient water both in the yard and in the pastures to accommodate increased water intake from stock feed? 
  • Have I calculated the cost of milk production profits to the volume of feed needed? (note: feeding costs might not be gained back immediately, but may increase the maintenance of more cows until it does rain, which can result in significant gains). 
  • Am I taking away from feed supplies for autumn and winter? 
  • Autumn feed management 

Grazing from March to May in New Zealand is all about recovering from summer and getting ready for spring. 

Your focus should be 

  • Consistent post-grazing residuals 
  • Grazing at the 2.5-3 leave mark 
  • Avoiding fast rotation immediately after rain 
  • Grazing before plants reach the three leaf stage

To ensure good growth through winter, you will need to predict the likely growth rates of your pastures, as well as identifying the leaf stages.

  • Winter cattle feed management 

Winter grazing from June to August allows for pasture regrowth to manage the upcoming calving season and milking herd intake.

Extended pasture rotations ensure persistence, and this means letting plants grow beyond the three leaf stage. If you have pastures prone to flooding, these should be rotated earlier in the season (autumn) to avoid pugging as much as possible. 

To improve pasture growth and cattle feed during wet winter months, standing cows off pasture will also improve pasture growth and cattle feed. 


What to feed dairy cows during their lactation stages?

Around 300 words in pointers

Lactating dairy cow nutrition requirements change depending on their age, stage and cycle. There are four main lactation stages when planning cattle feeding and nutrition. 

Use reference link: https://www.dairynz.co.nz/feed/nutrition/ 

  • Transition cows

The lactation transition period is generally the three weeks either side of calving. Caring for pregnant cows ensures optimal milk production, reproduction and overall health. 

The main focus for cattle feed before calving is reaching the optimum body condition score (BCS). After calving, colostrum cows become your number one priority and should be given unrestricted first access to good quality pastures and supplementation. 

As well as hitting energy requirements for BCS, it may be helpful to add a magnesium supplement during this time to support healthy bones and vitamin D uptake. Colostrum cows should be given calcium supplements to avoid milk fever. 

  • Early lactation

Feeding during early lactation covers both calving and mating. This means balancing demand for pastures as well as getting cows ready for mating again. 

Early lactation overlaps with late spring so your main focus will be reducing residuals while still allowing lactating cows to meet their energy requirements. An unmanaged surplus leads to overproduction of ryegrass, which could lessen milk production. 

  • Mid-late lactation

Mid-Late lactation aligns with summer and autumn months. To avoid issues such as heat stress, feed deficits and nitrate poisoning, you may want to consider reduced milking times and supplementary feeding during this stage.  

  • Dry period

Dairy cow nutrition requirements during the dry period help the calving cycle to start again. 

The dry period of the lactation cycle precedes the transitional period (from start of “dry off” to three weeks before calving). This means that nutrition focuses on increasing her BCS to ensure healthy conception and birth. 

Managing cow lactation cycles always takes the upcoming season into account when feeding in the current one. 

Things to consider during this period are:


Meet your cattle’s nutritional requirements with Sharpes farm feed

Looking for the best feed for dairy cow nutrition management? We’ve got you covered! Sharpes Dairy Feed is a high-energy ration specially formulated to meet the requirements of cows in late pregnancy and early lactation to ensure best possible

conception rates. Need calf care as well? We also stock quality calf feed and probiotics for calves to care for your whole herd. 


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