Achieving peak feed intake at eight to 10 weeks post-calving starts with proper care during the dry period and continues with sound nutrition after freshening. That’s no secret to Fred and Pat Beer of Milford, Ind. Yet like other producers, the Beers struggle to keep the fresh cows eating on their 250-cow dairy.

To overcome this challenge, they implement feeding and management strategies which help boost intake. For example, after a one- to two-day stay in the hospital area, fresh cows and heifers move into their own group for 20 to 30 days. During this time, the Beers feed high-quality forages and minimize the amount of supplemental fat in the diet — two strategies which encourage feed intake in finicky fresh cows. To further promote intake, the Beers separate the two-year-olds from the mature cows after this 30-day adjustment period.

Maintaining fresh-cow dry matter intake is one of the secrets to keeping your fresh cows healthy and productive during their lactation. Use these four feeding strategies to encourage optimum feed intake:

Balance protein and energy
After freshening, a cow’s energy needs increase with the onset of milk production. Meanwhile, the stress of calving causes her to reduce feed intake — thereby reducing the amount of energy she consumes — and that plunges her system into a negative-energy balance.

To offset this problem, aim for an energy level of 0.76 megacalories (Mcal) per pound of dry matter during the first two to three weeks after freshening, says Ric Grummer, dairy nutritionist at the University of Wisconsin. This gives the cow an opportunity to increase energy intake in a “stair step” approach — from a pre-fresh energy level of 0.72 Mcal to a lactating cow ration with an energy level of 0.78 to 0.8 Mcal. (Please see the table at right for additional fresh-cow nutrient guidelines.)

Protein is another important component of a fresh cow’s diet. However, little research exists on the appropriate level of crude protein to include in the immediate post-fresh diet, Grummer says. To encourage fresh-cow intake, Grummer suggests feeding a crude protein level close to 17 percent to 19 percent.

Feed high-quality forages
Another way that you can help your cows consume more nutrients is to feed only the highest-quality forages available — alfalfa which contains a neutral detergent fiber (NDF) level of 40 percent or less, for example — to your fresh cows, says Bill Weiss, dairy nutritionist at Ohio State University. High-quality forages contain a higher energy content than low-quality forages. Likewise, high-quality forages tend to be more palatable, which appeals to finicky fresh cows.

Limit fat
Fat levels greater than 5 percent of ration dry matter can discourage intake in fresh cows. In fact, fresh cows don’t need much, if any, supplemental fat — fat obtained from whole soybeans or rumen-bypass fats, for example — in their diet. First-calf heifers, on the other hand, need a moderate level of supplemental fat — 0.5 percent of diet dry matter — to help them adjust to a lactating-cow diet which contains supplemental fat. So, if you separate fresh cows and heifers from other lactating groups during the first two to three weeks of lactation, keep fat levels close to 0.5 percent of diet dry matter, Grummer says. For a fresh cow that eats about 40 to 45 pounds of dry matter per day, that’s close to 0.25 pounds of supplemental fat per animal per day.

However, if you mix recently-fresh cows and heifers with a lactating-cow group, you don’t want to deprive the cows that are more advanced in lactation of receiving higher levels of fat. In this case, consider feeding about 1 percent supplemental fat in the diet, or about 0.5 pounds of supplemental fat per cow per day, Grummer says.

Practice good feeding management
One of the biggest influences on fresh-cow intake is your feeding management, Weiss says.

In fact, fresh cows are the most vulnerable, least competitive animals on your dairy, says Rick Grant, dairy nutritionist at the University of Nebraska. Because of this, they will avoid situations which force them to compete for their feed, and that reduces feed intake. Grant and the other experts recommend the following feeding management practices to encourage dry matter intake:

  • Keep fresh feed available at least 20 hours per day.
  • Provide at least 20 to 24 inches of feeding space per cow.
  • Deliver feed at least three times per day, or in component-fed herds at least four times per day.
  • Push up feed at least four times per day.
  • Clean feed bunks or mangers daily.
  • Keep fresh, clean water available at all times.
  • Provide at least 1 linear foot of waterer per cow.
  • Provide at least 14 feet of space around each waterer in free-stall facilities.
  • Monitor feed refusals. Fresh cows should refuse about 5 percent of their ration.
  • Separate first-calf heifers from older cows when possible.
  • Use cooling systems over the feeding area during periods of heat stress.

Use these feeding techniques to tweak dry matter intake the first two to three weeks after freshening. It can help your fresh cows achieve success during lactation.