Time4Transitioning: A Guide On Dry Cow Nutrition

a guide on dry cow nutrition

The feed and nutrition given to dry cows has a vital impact on their upcoming lactation and chance of taking during the next service.

To ensure dry cow requirements are met, consider splitting cows into two groups pre-calving; far-off dry cows (from drying off, to 2-3 weeks prior to calving) and close to calving cows (2-3 weeks pre-calving). This will increase the likelihood of each cow reaching the desired milk yield post-calving, reduce the risk of metabolic diseases and help prevent problems at calving. Our experts recommend bearing in mind the following factors when managing dry cows:

Body condition score (BCS)

Aim to achieve a body condition score of 2.5-3.0 at drying off. The cows should be monitored throughout the dry period and diets adjusted accordingly to maintain this BCS as they calf down. Doing so will help reduce the risk of health issues and problems at calving. Don’t forget:

  • Cows with a higher than ideal BCS during the dry period are more prone to experiencing health issues at calving such as ketosis and milk fever. If cows have too high a BCS at the start of drying off and then lose condition during the dry period, they are more likely to have a difficult calving (dystocia)
  • Cows with a lower than ideal BCS during the dry period could be at higher risk of ketosis
  • If cows need to gain weight during the dry period, this should be achieved within the far-off period. This will enable diets to be adjusted gradually and prevent cows becoming overfat prior to calving


Nutritional balance

It’s important that the quality and quantity of feed given to dry cows is correct. Pay attention to:

Dry matter intakes

Dry matter intakes pre-calving will impact milk yield post-calving so it is important dry cow diets provide a sufficient amount. The average pre-calving Holstein (650kg) will require a dry matter intake of around 12kg per day.

Far-off dry cows should be given a maintenance diet of mainly low-quality forage. Hay, straw and stalky forages with a low digestibility value should be fed to maintain rumen fill and provide just enough energy. 

Cows near to calving should be fed in preparation for entering the milking herd. Their diet should contain a high level of fermentable carbohydrates to increase rumen volume and stimulate rumen absorptive capacity. This reduces the amount of fat mobilised during early lactation to prevent too much condition being lost. Aim to feed a diet consisting of 70-80% forage plus concentrates.

Contact your local Carr’s Billington on-farm dairy nutritionist to ensure the diet you are feeding to dry cows is balanced to meet nutritional requirements.

Protein and energy

The ideal protein content in dry cow diets is 13-14% (130 – 140 g/kg). Diets with less than 12% protein have been linked to a reduction in colostrum quality, feed intake and early lactation milk yields.

A low energy diet of 9MJ per kg of dry matter of energy should be fed to far-off cows.

Providing a diet with high intake potential and energy density to close up cows can support greater dry matter intakes (DMI) both pre and post calving. Aim for 115/120 MJ of ME per cow per day.

dry cow nutrition vitamix

Immune system support

The dry cow’s immune system is compromised at calving so it’s important that vitamin and mineral requirements are optimised pre-calving to reduce health issues.

A balanced diet should provide sufficient levels of vitamins and minerals, although supplementation may also be required in some instances.

Key points to note about dry cow vitamin and mineral requirements include:

  • Grass silage in the UK is often high in potassium. Potassium levels that are too high within dry cow diets can restrict calcium mobilisation at calving which can cause milk fever
  • A diet that is low in calcium (30g per head per day) should be supplied to dry cows to increase the efficiency of calcium mobilisation at calving
  • Higher levels of magnesium within dry cow diets will assist with calcium uptake at calving for increased colostrum and milk production. Dairy cows may require more than 20-30g of magnesium per day although this depends on the constituents of the diet
  • A calcium bolus can be administered to cows at high-risk of milk fever immediately pre-calving. Predisposing factors that could cause a cow to be classified as ‘high risk’ include older cows (the risk of milk fever increases by approximately 9% per lactation) or pasture or legume fed dry cows
  • Dry cows will require higher levels of selenium, vitamin E and Zinc. Vitamin E and selenium will not only help immune function, to prevent and decrease the severity of mastitis, but could prevent white muscle disease in the calves. Zinc helps with the production of antibodies
  • Adding a premium yeast fraction like SafMannan ®, can help to improve rumen function and colostrum quality
  • A fresh cow drink containing glucose, vitamins and minerals and rehydration salts can be given immediately after calving to prevent deficiencies which could potentially cause a delay in her entering the milking herd or reduced milk production

Interested to learn more about feeding dairy cows in autumn? Read this blog.

time for transitioning


A high-yielding and low-intervention lactation hinges on a smooth transition from one lactation to the next.

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