Should You Dry Off Cows Early?

Holstein cow. ( Taylor Leach )

One option to reduce your farm’s total milk production is to dry off cows early, maybe 3 or even 4 months from calving. How much milk production is reduced will depend on the number of cows dried off and their current level of production.

And doing this has its own risks, not the least of which is calving in cows that added body condition during a prolonged dry period, says Mike Hutjens, a University of Illinois Extension dairy nutritionist.

“Weight gain could be a real risk factor,” he says. “I recommend placing these long days dry cows on a low energy diet to avoid weight gain. Hopefully, we can keep cows [that are dried off early] at a body condition score of 3.0 (2.75 to 3.25).”

When you dry off lactating cows early, use similar protocols to normal dry off, says Hutjens. He notes that some farms with very high production successfully dry off cows still giving 80 lb of milk. To dry these cows off, you would likely want to move them to a separate group and change the diet to all forage.

He also recommends immediate cessation of milking—do not milk once a day or every other day. Also, do not limit access to water.

Ron Erskine, a Michigan State University veterinarian and milk quality specialist, agrees. “There is no silver bullet,” he says.

“The best means is to reduce energy intake, thus decrease milk production, before dry off. From an udder health perspective, I do NOT recommend once a day milking for a cow at 80 lbs of milk,” he says. “Rather feed her a high fiber diet to get her to drop production. If you milk once a day, not only does that decrease the rate of udder involution, but you raise risk of mastitis with less frequent milking, let alone the labor and handling of the milking issues.

“There is good research to suggest that milk production at dry off is strongly and positively correlated to teat canal patency (remaining open) during the dry period and ensuing risk of infection at calving,” he says. “Thus, internal teat sealants (and unless a comprehensive plan is in place to identify infected cows at dry off) and blanket dry cow therapy are recommended.

“If herds can select infected cows and monitor them after calving, selective dry cow therapy is an option, but that brings in other issues,” Erskine says.

When these cows calve back in, consider adding rumen-protected choline to protect the liver. Also consider rumen-protected niacin for cows with body condition scores over 3.25, Hutjens says.

“Target 16 to 18 Mcal of net energy in these long days dry group,” he says. “If cows consume higher dry matter intake and energy, add more straw or lower quality forage to fill up the cows limiting excessive nutrients.”

Other strategies being discussed to reduce milk production are simply to reduce the nutrition levels in late lactation or across the entire herd. Hutjens discourages both of these approaches. He says you are probably better off simply drying off the late lactation cows because you wouldn’t reduce their milk production all that much. Plus, drying off early saves feed costs and labor.

Reducing nutrition levels across the herd is also a bad idea. “I would not do this as you are going to shut down the entire lactation, and you might want the milk production in 3 months,” he says. Plus, you risk causing reproduction issues and health problems that could spill into the next lactation.