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Managing a cows lactation cycle

What to feed cows at each lactation cycle for high milk yields

What to feed cows at each lactation cycle for high milk yields



Understanding cow lactation cycles can help feed a more profitable milking herd. 

After calving, there are four main lactation cycles, each with varied levels of dry matter intake requirements, milk production and body condition growth. 

This guide will cover the dairy cow lactation cycle, nutrition care and management for lactating cows at each stage of the cycle, as well as ways to improve lactation and milk yield overall. 


Understanding the lactation cycle of cows

A cattle feeding guide always starts with managing the cow lactation cycle

Without proper feed management and pregnant cow care, cattle will have less milk yield and longer periods in between calving. Getting feeding right around the lactation cycle is more profitable in the long run. 

The approximate lactation cycle for a dairy cow is 

  • Early lactation– Peak milk production, days 31-130 after calving 
  • Mid lactation – Producing milk solids, settled after mating, days 131-230 
  • Late lactation – Length of lactation before drying off depends on nutrition, days 231-300
  • Dry period – Focus on body condition, recovery period before next calving, days 301- 30 of next cycle 

The cow lactation cycle is approximately 14 months, with 12 months for lactation and two months for the dry period. Some cycle models also include “pre-calving” (three weeks before calving) and “post-calving” (two weeks to one month after calving).

Each stage of the cycle has different levels of milk production, as well as feed intake requirements. Dairy cows need to be calving to start the lactation cycle, and the four stages happen in between each calving season. 


Nutrient requirements of dairy cows during lactation

Lactating cow care and management revolves around their changing body condition and nutrient intake. 

  • During early lactation

Early lactation is approximately the first three months of the cycle. It starts in the first three to four weeks after calving. 

This stage is where cows will reach their peak milk production. However, food intake doesn’t peak until later cycles and cows are usually losing weight in this stage. This is because the demand for energy used in milk production is greater than the demand for nutrient intake. 

During early lactation, nutrition should:

  • Be at least 40% forage to help rumination 
  • Avoid big changes, any added rations should change gradually 
  • Balance protein, energy density fibre and carbohydrates 
  • Have plenty of dry matter available 
  • Make sure they are getting enough starch to increase milk production 

Nutrition during this period will help with the cow’s future fertility and reproductive performance, therefore her milk production. 

  • Mid-lactation

Mid-lactation is the stage where cattle will be settling down after mating. 

In this time period (days 130-230 after calving), the focus is nutrient dense food to encourage more milk solids production and avoid a decline after peak milk production. By this time, peak production and peak dry matter intake will have already passed, however you will need to maximise intake as much as possible. 

Prioritising high quality rations means your herd will produce more milk for longer. 

It’s not just how much they are eating, it’s the energy density. Like early lactation, increasing fermentable carbohydrates by feeding your cows starch based feed will help increase the metabolisable energy of the dry matter. 

For every 2kg of milk production in larger cow breeds, they will need to consume about 1kg of dry matter. 

  • Late lactation

The last stage of the cow milking cycle before they dry off is late lactation. 

Both milk production and feed intake gradually decline during this period, so rations with a lot of protein and energy are not as important as the first two stages. The cow will steadily gain weight as the foetus grows and she replaces adipose tissue lost during early lactation. 

Ways to peak milk yield and improve early lactation performance

You can increase peak milk yield by understanding what your cows need throughout the cow milking cycle. 

Below are seven ways you can maximise lactation performance in your herd. 

  • 1. Start the process immediately after calving

You can get cows ready for the early lactation stage by optimising feeding as soon as they have given birth.

Some ways you can do this is by giving them access to 45-70 litres of warm water, keeping their feeding troughs hygienic and allow them to eat as much grass as they possibly can. 

You will also need to give them an energy dense ration as they can’t consume the amount of grass they need to meet energy requirements alone. 

  • 2. Increase comfort levels for cows

Minimising stress will help transition cows into the milking period. 

Factors like overcrowding can stress out post-calving cows, so make sure they are kept with other fresh cows for two to three weeks and keep paddocks below 85% capacity. If possible, you should also stop cows from separating from their usual herd members. 

  • 3. Start preparing them in the dry period 

The lactation season starts long before cows actually start lactating. During pregnancy in their “dry” period, you can support future milk production by ensuring adequate nutrition and maintaining their body condition score so it doesn’t get too high and energy intake doesn’t exceed requirements. 

  • 4. Support rumen health 

Rumen health and digestion is important no matter what time of year it is. 

During the three months following calving in the early lactation cycle, you should make sure they get plenty of digestible fibre. Avoiding large, infrequent meals (AKA slug feeding) and providing longer forage pellets can help reduce the risk of rumen acidosis. 

  • 5. Supplement diet with feed additives

Your transitional “fresh cows” can benefit from supplementation. 

Using additives such as amino acids to meet protein requirements, yeast cultures to support fermentation in the rumen and ionophores to increase glucose availability can all support cow digestive  health and milk production. 

  • 6. Avoid anti-nutritional factors 

What you don’t feed cows is just as important as what you do feed them. 

For example, mould can decrease feed intake and digestibility if the colonies are too high. Less feed intake means less milk production in the mid to late lactation cycle. 

Make sure food supplementation is replaced each day and stored correctly to avoid mould growth and unintended fermentation. 

  • 7. Include starch based feed in their diet 

During the early and mid lactation cycle stages, you can increase milk production by using starch based feed. 

Starch grains increase the amount of fermentable carbohydrates in their diet. This then increases the amount of glucose and blood insulin, which is the precursor to lactose in milk production. 

Sharpes Dairy Feed is specifically formulated to support dairy cows throughout their lactation cycle as a pasture supplement. 



Looking for the best feed for lactation cycle 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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