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Home / Livestock

Dairy cow diet in the first 100 days

Workers milk cows at the Kisii Agricultural Training Center on 27/1/2021. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

I have been keeping dairy animals for the last five years. I understand that feeds and feeding are key in milk production. But it is an area not understood well by many farmers. Kindly break it down for us. Thank you.

[Waweru wa Njoroge, Githunguri]

Thank you Wa Njoroge for that question.  As you rightfully mentioned, feeds and feeding is a critical area in dairy farming. It determines the productivity and even profitability of your enterprise. If you get this wrong, expect issues like low milk production and diseases.

But if you get it right, you become a happy farmer milking profits from your venture. But this topic is too wide to be covered in a single article. So, I will break it into three parts - feeding during early, mid and late lactation.

Each of these periods is unique and requires its own feeding regime. 

What is early lactation?

Early lactation covers the first 100 days after calving down. This is a critical phase because it is the start of milk production after a break and this comes with increased need for feeds.

Feed intake is, however, low in most cows resulting in weight loss. Lack of appetite is a common after calving. This happens at a time when the energy demand to support lactation is very high. The result is a negative energy balance.

Milk fever

Milk fever, a common disease, hits around this time due an imbalance in the demand and supply of calcium. This imbalance typically lasts for three months leading to loss of weight and body condition. Excessive loss of condition in early lactation leads to poor reproductive performance and therefore needs to be carefully managed.

As a good dairy farmer, strive to minimise this through proper feeding. This will minimise immune suppression due to inadequate supply of energy, proteins and mineral elements. Overcoming the negative energy imbalance

At this stage the rations should meet protein and energy needs. In other words, feeds must have a good mix of proteins, energy and fibre for optimal ruminal activity. The dry matter intake should start at 2.5 per cent of the body weight and increased slowly as the cow approaches end of this stage to four per cent body weight. Out of this, about 20 per cent should be proteins. As already noted feed intake is not as good as is required by the body.

To increase palatability, the forage should be of good quality and chopped into 2.6 cm pieces. This increases intake by improved chewing. Avoid abrupt changes in feeds. Any change should be done gradually to prevent digestive problems like acidosis and reduced feed intake.

About a kilogramme of concentrates is recommended during the first two weeks and can be increased gradually thereafter.

Strategies to increase feed intake and boost milk production

High appetite window

Cows like feeding after milking and fresh palatable feeds should be made available to the cow immediately to utilise the high appetite window. Actually, feeds should be available to cows at all times but at this point, provide high quality feeds.

Minimise macro-mineral deficiencies that can easily result in milk fever and other metabolic diseases. Calcium, phosphorus and magnesium are important mineral elements at this stage. Calcium body demand is rarely met by a diet of pasture, which typically contains only 0.5 per cent calcium, and grain, which typically contains only 0.1 per cent calcium or less.

Supplementation with mineral licks is important in ensuring calcium is supplied to the cow in the correct amounts and time. Phosphorus requirements are often met by a diet of pasture and concentrates. Magnesium requirements vary depending on the composition of the diet. This will be determined by individual circumstances, which need to be assessed regularly depending on the farm and the season. 

The main trace nutrients to consider at this stage are zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, iodine, cobalt and the vitamins (A, D and E). These trace nutrients are frequently supplied in mineral licks. 

The main goal therefore at early lactation is to increase quality feed intake and thus offset negative energy imbalance. The next stage is mid lactation during which milk production climaxes but that too comes with other challenges.

[The writer works at the Directorate of Veterinary Services; [email protected]]

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