Winter feeding

Last month I wrote an article on OAD milking. I got quite a bit of positive feedback from that as it resonated with what farmers were experiencing. This month I want to write about cows on winter crops however I somehow get the feeling that I won’t get the same sort of feedback as I did with my OAD milking article, yet the principles of both management decisions are very similar. The reason why cows are doing so much better with once a day milking is because they have a lot more time available to them to behave naturally which is great, but now it is winter and lots of cows in our country go on to winter crops, often knee high in mud with nowhere to lay down and no shelter – just trying to cope with the rain and the wind.

When we choose to be animal farmers we choose to look after living creatures. That means that it is our responsibility to provide for the six basic needs a cow has which are: air, light, water, food, shelter and space. If those needs are met, a cow can function properly. If they are not met a cow will struggle. It just depends on the severity of the lack as to how much a cow will struggle.

When we put cows on winter crops we have a few challenges to deal with. One of them is the dietary challenge. It is important to make sure that there is a transition period of at least 2 weeks to allow the bacteria in the rumen to adjust to a new diet. This is even more critical in the spring when the cows go back onto a grass-based diet. Changes in diet have been proven to affect hoof health. Calving is also a risk period for lameness so if you combine those two, there is more attention to detail needed to ensure lameness issues are minimised.

The other requirement is shelter. Cows that are on winter crops often lack comfortable resting places which is part of the need for shelter. As the laying down area deteriorates, the threshold before a cow lays down goes up. This means that a cow will be becoming increasingly tired before she will choose to lay down.

A good way to find out if the needs are being properly met is by looking at cow behaviour. When you look at a well-fed herd in the paddock take note at how the cows behave. They normally either graze, drink, lay down or socialize. Cows don’t normally stand for the sake of standing for very long. If they are standing for long periods of time, then this should raise a red flag that there is a problem. When cows spend the winter months on winter crops they spend a lot of time standing. That is not the normal behaviour of cows and therefore we can expect cow wellbeing to be compromised. There is a correlation between resting time and lameness in dairy cows.

As many people recognize the positive effect of resting time in OAD milking, I hope people will also recognize the positive effect of providing better resting areas in the dry periods as well.

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