Practical considerations in feeding dairy cows

The objective of feeding dairy cows should be to attain a high level of milk production. Roughages alone cannot provide all the required nutrients, especially in early lactation. Concentrates are therefore included to supplement roughages.

Milk production cycle of a dairy cow can be divided into three stages:

  • Dry period which normally occurs in the last two months of pregnancy
  • Early lactation – in the first two months after calving
  • Mid and late lactation

High returns when supplementing with concentrates normally occur when it is done during early lactation. The cow achieves her peak milk yield at around 4 – 6 weeks after calving. This peak yield determines to a large extent the total milk yield of the cow in a given lactation period. Attaining an early peak milk yield results in more milk production even if the cow is not adequately fed later in the lactation cycle. On the contrary a cow that is fed poorly during early lactation has low total milk yield even if fed adequately during the rest of the lactation period. Feeding the cow prior to calving and during early lactation is therefore crucial.

Feeding the dry, pregnant cow

A dry pregnant cow in the last two months of pregnancy utilizes the feed for:

  • Growth of the calf
  • Restoring body weight lost during the previous lactation
  • Catering for reserves for the next lactation

The aim of feeding the dry pregnant cow is to get her in good condition at calving so that she can produce a good calf and still have some reserves to produce milk. Body reserves are normally converted into milk during early lactation. These reserves are critical as the intake of roughage is usually low during this period and supplements often do not meet the supply of nutrients required by the cow. In contrast overfeeding the dry pregnant cow fattens her and this should be avoided to prevent calving difficulties especially for Friesians.

In general, roughages provide nutrients for maintenance and about 7 kg milk per day.  Give the cow 2 – 2.5 kg dairy meal per day during the last month of pregnancy. Always check the body condition of the animal by adjusting the level of feeding appropriately.

Feeding during early lactation

During this period feed the cow in such a way that it can attain an early high peak milk yield without undergoing excessive weight losses. The feeding program should be such that the amount of concentrates gradually increases by 0.5 – 1 kg daily from the 2 – 2.5 kg dairy meal per day as long as the milk yield increases. Stop the increments when a further increase in the amount of dairy meal does not result in a further increase in milk yield. Be careful as you do this because digestive disturbances can occur as you increase the levels of concentrates. Smaller breeds have a limit of 8 kg per day and bigger breeds around 10 kg daily beyond which you expect this problem to occur. However, much depends on the individual cow.

Underfeeding during early lactation will result in a low total yield and the cows will often show weak heat signs. If the funds for purchasing concentrates are limiting it would be more economical to feed concentrates in the early stage of lactation than at the end.

Feeding during mid and late lactation

When the cow has reached its peak milk yield, milk production will decline gradually with advancing lactation stage. At this stage the cow should be fed according to the milk production. The quantity of concentrates to be fed depends on the types of forages the cow is offered.

On average the farmer is advised to feed 1 kg dairy meal for every 1½ kg milk produced above 7 kg milk per day. A more refined rule when using napier grass is to feed according to the following:

  • Roughage – young, dark green leafy napier grass – (about 3ft tall): 1 kg dairy meal for every 1½ kg milk above 10 kg for breeds like Friesians, Guernseys and Aryshire and above 8 kg for smaller breeds like Jerseys and first calvers.
  • Roughage – stemmy napier grass: 1 kg dairy meal for every 1½ kg milk above 6.5 kg milk for heavy breeds and above 4.5 kg for smaller breeds and first calvers.
  • Roughage – poor quality or very little roughage available: 1 kg dairy meal per 1½ kg milk above 2.5 kg of milk for heavy breeds and above 1.5 kg milk for smaller breeds and first calvers.

My observation is that throughout the lactation most farmers often do not feed the cows according to milk production but give a fixed amount to keep the cows quiet especially during milking. This can be a very expensive method that guarantees milking pleasure as some feeds could be going to waste especially during late lactation. Feeding too much concentrates during the late lactation stage is a waste of money if sufficient roughage of good quality is available. A small quantity of concentrate mixed with some napier grass or other roughage can keep the cow going as well as keep her quiet during milking time.

If cows do get enough roughage of reasonable quality because the roughage position on the farm is poor the roughage may supply only the maintenance needs of the animal. In such cases milk has to be produced from concentrates. Roughages should therefore be substituted by concentrates which can be a very expensive way of producing milk. This normally happens where there is high land-pressure or over-stocking.

Feeding minerals

Additional supplementation with minerals is usually required. As with concentrates the market in Kenya is over flooded with bogus mineral mixtures of doubtful composition. Most of these mixtures just contain common salt. Farmers are well advised to use a mineral mixture of known origin. Construct a special mineral box in order to ensure the cow has access to minerals all the time. Avoid mineral bricks or blocks as their prices are much too high compared to their composition and the intake by the animals is usually too low to meet the cow’s need.

Checklist for feeding a dairy cow in a zero grazing unit

The milk production of a dairy cow is by and large a reflection of its feeding situation. The following checklist can be a guideline to diagnose a feeding problem:

  • Milk production

  • Is the milk production according to expectations taking into account the type of animal, the lactation stage and history of the animal?

  • Body condition

  • Are the animals in poor, fair or good body conditions?

  • Hair coat

  • A smooth hair coat often reflects good health and good feeding (minerals, deworming done weekly)

  • Health

  • A healthy cow eats, ruminates and is always curious

  • Water

  • Is there free access to water and if not, how frequent are the cows able to obtain water and in what amount?

  • Type of roughage

  • What is the quality of roughage? Are they young or stemmy material, maize stover, hay or silage?

  • Amount of roughage

  • An empty feed trough indicates underfeeding. Determine or estimate the amount of roughage the cows needs in a year and calculate the amount that the cows should feed on a daily basis.

  • Minerals

  • Do all cows have free access to minerals? If not, are minerals fed regularly? Which type of minerals?

  • Concentrates

  • Do you as the farmer feed concentrates and how much? What type of concentrates and which brand? How you feed, according to production and lactation stage or just fixed amounts?

  • Records

  • Do you keep records of the amount of concentrates fed and does it tally with the amount purchased?

If the conditions of the checklist are up to date and the milk production is not satisfactory, a more detailed ration balance has to be worked out.


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