When the dairy-judging team came to visit, Jerry Spielman did what he could to be hospitable and provide the students with an opportunity to hone their judging skills on some of his Jersey cattle. And, since no good deed goes unreturned, Spielman ended up receiving some valuable advice.

The professor who brought the students from KansasStateUniversity, John Shirley, suggested to Spielman that he try incorporating molasses into the dry-cow and early-fresh rations. Spielman was all ears, since he had been having some fresh-cow problems. Peak milk production wasn’t as good as it should have been, and Spielman’s fresh cows were having quite a few metabolic disorders.

Since the beginning of July, when he began incorporating molasses, Spielman has seen a noticeable improvement in the cows at freshening. They are eating more, and, as they progress in lactation, their peak milk production has improved as well. Although he doesn’t have exact figures yet for his 300-cow herd in Seneca, Kan., Spielman is convinced that the difference is real.

Based on the experiences of Spielman and other producers, along with new research findings from KansasStateUniversity, you might want to consider incorporating molasses into your dry-cow and early-fresh rations.

Unanswered questions
Unfortunately, molasses prices are high -— and may go even higher with damage to the sugar-cane crop brought on by Hurricane Katrina in late August. Many of you probably wonder if molasses can pencil out, economically.   

Shirley, a professor of dairy science at Kansas State University, acknowledges that while molasses is expensive, he’ll gladly swap the initial cost of molasses for the additional milk one can get by feeding it to dry cows and early-fresh cows. 

Basically, he says, you need to feed 1 pound of molasses per cow per day. If feed-grade molasses costs $156 per ton, then it would cost 7.8 cents to feed molasses to one cow per day. Over an entire 60-day dry period, the cost for one cow would be approximately $4 to $5. 

“I spend $4 during the dry period, and I will get that back in the first three days of lactation (in the form of increased milk production),” Shirley says.

According to new research from KansasStateUniversity, mature (multiparous) cows fed molasses during the dry and early-fresh periods yielded 9.5 pounds more milk per day, on average, during the first 75 days of lactation than a control group of cows receiving no molasses.

Yet, there are unanswered questions. Do cows eat more because the molasses is so palatable?  Does molasses lead to improved rumen efficiency? If there is increased efficiency, is it due to increased absorption of nutrients by the fingerlike projections on the rumen wall known as papillae?

Shirley and one of his Ph.D. graduate students, William Miller, acknowledge there are some things that we still don’t know. 

Further experiments are planned at KansasStateUniversity to see exactly what is happening. Among other things, researchers will monitor the rumen fluid of cows in different treatment groups to determine if there is indeed a higher absorption of volatile fatty acids by the papillae in molasses-fed cows.

May stimulate rumen papillae
Miller began with a “working hypothesis” that molasses does, indeed, stimulate the rumen papillae.

During the dry period, when concentrates are withdrawn from the cow, rumen papillae shrink in size, greatly reducing the amount of surface area available for nutrient absorption. Other research has borne this out over the years. For instance, in the September 1975 issue of Journal of Dairy Science, researchers at IowaStateUniversity documented significant differences in the size of rumen papillae between hay-fed steers and grain-fed steers.

The temptation might be to feed more concentrates during the dry period to keep the rumen papillae viable going into the transition period. But that can be a problem. Feeding corn can cause a far-off dry cow to gain more weight than she should.

A small amount of molasses, on the other hand, can accomplish the same purpose as corn without adding excess condition. When fermented in the rumen, it produces a volatile fatty acid known as butyrate. Butyrate, in conjunction with another fatty acid known as propionate, stimulates the rumen papillae, causing the surface area to expand.

Providing a strategic burst of butyrate on a daily basis can ease the transition as cows move toward early lactation.   

Dramatic results
This past July, Miller reported his initial data at the American Dairy Science Association annual meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. The results are dramatic. (See the charts below.)

And, these same observations are being seen out in the field. Some commercial dairies, such as Jerry Spielman’s in northeastern Kansas, are already seeing an increase in dry-matter intake among their dry cows, as well as an increase in milk production during the first 40 days of lactation, Shirley says.  

Spielman, for one, knows the difference is real.