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Managing Body Condition Score in Late Lactation


Getting cows to the correct body condition score (BCS) at calving is one of the most important tasks for dairy farmers. Trouble-free calving, good conception rates, reduced culling and better milk solids production are all linked to this simple measure. James Dunne, Dairy Specialist has advice here.

Getting cows to the correct body condition score (BCS) at calving is one of the most important tasks for dairy farmers. Trouble-free calving, good conception rates, reduced culling and better milk solids production are all linked to this simple measure. Therefore correcting body condition score through the dry period is of utmost importance.

Target BCS for cows at calving is 3.25 with an acceptable range of 0.25 units above or below this point

Rule of thumb: Every condition score (~ 50 kg) below target at calving results in the cow milking 450 litres less during the next lactation and reduced fertility. 

Management options to improve cow BCS

Herd average BCS is not particularly useful for herd management- focus instead on using BCS of individual animals and make decisions on a cow-by-cow basis. Body condition score is a very good indicator of long-term energy balance (i.e. the difference between feed energy and that used for milk and maintenance). Secondary factors such as genetics, internal parasites and lameness have indirect effects, however the primary tools for BCS management in late lactation are:

  • Feed intake and quality: Feed energy intake drives BCS gain in mid-late lactation. The aim should be to maximise energy intake from grass for the milking herd, and then supplement as necessary. Complete an autumn grass budget to manage supply and quality. Opportunities to increase feed available per cow in milk by drying off thin / low producing cows / heifers. Feed supplements should be purchased based on high UFL content (>0.94UFL), not crude protein. In the dry period, poor quality silage has a double effect of poor dry matter intakes and low energy content. Energy supplements may be needed to achieve target BCS (Table 1).
  • Dry period length and days in milk: At the standard 60 to 75 days dry, cows at BCS 2.75 drying off and eating reasonable quality (68-70 DMD) silage will be at target BCS calving down. Allow at least 30 extra days dry where BCS and/or silage quality are below target. This would mean drying off in late October for early Feb calving, mid-late November for March calving and mid-December for April calving. Over target (fat) cows may need their silage restricted depending on silage quality.
  • Milking frequency: Once-a-day (OAD) milking is a proven method for improving BCS. It is very useful during early lactation when cows tend to increase milk yield in response to extra feeding. A drop of 20% in milk and increased solids is typical. Importantly, this assumes no significant change in plane of nutrition- reducing feed intake while moving to OAD milking will cause a larger decline in milk and negate much of the benefit to BCS. At least 6 weeks OAD is needed to have effect on BCS. Avoid on cows with SCC of >200,000.

Act early to have cows in correct BCS next spring:

  • Assess quality and quantity of feed available.
  • Record the BCS of each cow in the herd in early October.
  • Identify the calving date for each cow..
  • Assign each cow to a management plan to meet target BCS using one or more of the tools available.
  • Batch cows according to BCS over the winter period.

Table 1: Guideline effects of silage quality and management options on BCS change

1 Energy demand versus intake on 62, 68 or 72 DMD silage. Assumes ad lib silage offered.
2 6 weeks extra dry period on same silage ad lib.
3 Assuming 20% reduction from an average 14.5 litres/day in final 7 weeks, feed unchanged.
4 2kg soya hulls or equivalent on ad lib silage, 0.4kg DM per kg substitution rate assumed. 

 

 

In a recent ‘Let’s Talk Dairy Webinar’ Stuart Childs was joined by Joe Patton (Teagasc Dairy Specialist), John McCabe (Dairy Advisor) and John Paul Murphy (Moorepark farm manager) to discuss body condition scoring cows, and what management is required for cows with different body condition scores (BCS).

If you would like more information on the topic of Body Condition Scoring dairy cows you can view this here webinar

The Teagasc Dairy Specialists issue an article on a topic of interest to dairy farmers every Monday here on Teagasc Daily. Find more on Teagasc Dairy here