Nutrition during the far-off dry period may have more influence on fresh-cow performance than the close-up diet.

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Barry Visser lives by this philosophy when balancing clients’ dry-cow diets. However, if traditional diets repeatedly fail and fresh-cow health problems continually occur, he implements a new feeding strategy. Visser, a dairy specialist with Vita Plus Corporation in Hutchinson, Minn., is an eyewitness to a disturbing research finding that shows traditional close-up diets — those that promote higher concentrate levels and maximum feed intake — don’t always work. 

What’s more, new research shows a link between the far-off diet and fresh-cow performance — a finding that sheds more light on the importance of far-off nutrition.

Here’s why you should pay closer attention to nutrition during the far-off dry period.

Close-up diets offer limited success
Close-up diets that provide higher energy levels and promote maximum feed intake have become the norm during the past 10 to 15 years. Unfortunately, few research studies show these types of diets are effective at reducing fresh-cow health problems, says Jim Drackley, dairy nutritionist at the University of Illinois. The research also shows traditional close-up diets exhibit little or no effect on fresh-cow performance.

One such study, published in the March 2003 Journal of Dairy Science, shows that the energy level fed during the close-up period did not affect milk production in the next lactation. During the last 28 days before calving, close-up cows ate either a diet containing 0.72 Mcal of net energy-lactation (NEL) per pound of dry matter or a high-energy diet that supplied 0.77 Mcal of NEL. Neither diet improved milk production in the next lactation. The cows also did not eat more after calving, although the cows fed the higher-energy diet ate about 20 percent more dry matter before calving.

Attempts to maximize dry matter intake during the close-up period also have been met with little success. For example, a study published in the September 2001 Journal of Dairy Science shows that high dry matter intake during the close-up period had no effect on fresh-cow dry matter intake or milk production.

Far-off diets impact fresh cows
Frustration over unsuccessful close-up diets has led researchers to look more closely at the far-off diet. And, the results so far look encouraging.

On-going research from the University of Illinois shows that the far-off diet has a positive impact on fresh-cow performance — perhaps even more so than the close-up diet.

During the first round of research, reported at the summer 2003 American Dairy Science Association annual meeting, Illinois researchers fed far-off cows a low-energy diet. Another group of far-off cows were given free access to a moderate-energy diet. The low-energy diet contained 0.59 Mcal of NEL per pound of dry matter and 26 percent straw on a dry-matter basis. The moderate-energy diet -— which is commonly fed on farm — contained 0.72 Mcal of NEL per pound of dry matter. 

When the cows calved, the ones that were given free access to the moderate-energy diet during the far-off period faired worse than the far-off cows fed the low-energy, high-straw diet. These cows ate less, had much poorer energy balances and had higher non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA) levels during the first 10 days after calving than herdmates on the low-energy, high-straw diet. These factors put cows at greater risk for fresh-cow health problems like ketosis and fatty liver, Drackley says. In addition, the cows produced about 6 pounds less milk per cow per day during the first 56 days in milk compared to the cows fed the low-energy diet.

It is important to note that the dry cows in this study were in average body condition — 3.0 to 3.3 on a five-point scale. So, in other words, the negative impact on fresh-cow performance observed in the moderate-energy group is most likely the result of these cows eating too much energy for an extended time period rather than from being too fat, Drackley says.

Visser and colleagues with Vita Plus also have seen first-hand that lower-energy diets during the dry period can improve fresh-cow performance. “We are seeing reduced ketosis, displaced abomasums, retained placenta, and in some situations, much less udder edema at calving,” he says. These diets are not for everyone, Visser cautions, but they do illustrate just how important far-off nutrition is to fresh-cow health.

Tying it all together
More work is under way at the University of Illinois. However, the results so far show that nutrition during the far-off dry period strongly influences fresh-cow performance — and it’s evident on-farm, too.

This is good reason to pay more attention to the far-off diet. But remember, diet alone does not make or break a fresh cow’s performance. Good dry-period management also is important for success in early lactation.

What’s the ideal far-off dry-cow diet?

If your fresh cows respond poorly to a traditional close-up diet, then they might benefit from adjustments made to their far-off diet. Here is what the latest research suggests:

  • Feed a low-energy diet — 0.57 to 0.61 Mcal of NEL per pound of dry matter — that contains 20 percent to 30 percent chopped straw, on a dry-matter basis.
  • Don’t restrict intake. Research shows that restricting intake on a moderate-energy diet — 0.72 Mcal of NEL per pound of dry matter — during the far-off period does not improve fresh-cow performance. It also is not practical to do in a free-stall setting, as some cows will over-eat while others get too little.
  • Follow with a close-up diet that promotes consistent intake. For example, aim for a high-forage diet that contains an 80:20 forage-to-concentrate ratio.