Jack and Jason Martin’s 165-cow herd was in a rut. The first 10 days after cows freshened, were quite frankly, “a wreck,” recalls Jason Martin. Seven out of 10 cows that freshened needed extra attention. Most of them received calcium intravenously. The father-and-son team from Waynesboro, Pa., had had enough of high treatment cost.

They turned to the dry-cow diet for a solution — and found one without adding straw to the diet. Fresh-cow treatment cost has “drastically dropped,” Jason Martin says. Intravenous calcium is practically non-existent at freshening and rolling herd average is up 3,000 pounds.

Straw diets still work, but producers like the Martins are proof that other dry-cow feeding approaches can work just as well.

Controls energy balance

There is good scientific basis for using straw or other low-energy forages during the dry period. It controls the cow’s energy intake, which improves her energy balance and helps her head off metabolic problems after calving.

“We think these energy-balance situations underlie a lot of health problems,” says Jim Drackley, professor of dairy nutrition at the University of Illinois.

But straw diets come with their share of management considerations. The hassle of chopping and mixing straw into the ration doesn’t appeal to everyone.

The Martins selected a different way to control energy mobilization in early lactation. They fell into step with a moderate-energy diet suggested by Ed Okuley, a Shippensburg, Pa., nutritionist employed by Agri-King. (For more details, see the sidebar on page 30.)

Fresh-cow problems shrink

Cows responded positively to the Martins’ new diet, holding onto intakes around calving and freshening with significantly less health problems.

The change was like black and white. “Every single cow was cleaning,” Jason Martin says. “We were jumping up and down.” Milk fevers and ketosis essentially went away. Veterinary bills and the cost of all those intravenous calcium treatments “drastically dropped,”  he adds.

Rolling herd average is up 3,000 pounds and cows peak better, too. Peak-milk weights from mature cows are upward of 110 pounds, at least 20 pounds more than they used to be.

Walter and Joel Heisey in Lebanon, Pa., also have seen a drop in fresh-cow health problems in cows fed a straw-free diet. They believe in harnessing the energy from homegrown forages and feeding dry cows the same ingredients found in the lactating ration.

By doing so, they have been able to cut fresh-cow problems in half. In 1999, they recorded eight milk fevers and eight to nine displacements in cows that freshened. Seven years later, fresh-cow displaced abomasums were down to four per year, and they saw none in 2007.

All dry cows receive the same total mixed ration. (For more details about the diet, see the sidebar to the right.)

The only downside, jokes Joel Heisey, is “I have not learned to give cows (intravenous) calcium in the neck.” He’s optimistic he won’t have to learn that skill any time soon.

The Martin’s dry-cow diet

Jack and Jason Martin of Waynesboro, Pa., feed a moderate-energy diet throughout the entire 60-day dry period. Here is a profile of the diet:

Net-energy lactation (NEL)


0.70 Mcal


Total dietary crude protein


12.87 percent




1.67 percent


Corn silage


12.5 pounds (dry matter)


Grain mix (48-percent soybean meal, ground shelled corn,


4 pounds (dry matter)


Grass hay (85 relative feed value)


9.5 pounds


Chart courtesy of Bill Enos, Agri-King

The Heisey’s dry-cow diet

Walter and Joel Heisey of Lebanon, Pa., feed a one-group dry-cow TMR for 60 days. Here’s a snapshot of the diet:

Net-energy lactation (NEL)


0.75 Mcal


Total dietary crude protein


15.9 percent




1.62 percent


Corn silage


7.7 pounds (dry matter)


Alfalfa haylage


3.4 pounds (dry matter)


Shell corn


3.7 pounds (dry matter)


Protein mix


2.8 pounds (dry matter)


Mineral mix


2.5 pounds (dry matter)


48-percent soybean meal


1.84 pounds (dry matter)


Grass hay


1.3 pounds (dry matter), not offered in TMR


Chart courtesy of Don Bollinger, Agri-King