Feeding and managing the dairy cow in the dry period to boost production can be a mystery but master the procedure and not only will cow health and fertility improve but so too will milk yields.

According to American vet and dairy cow consultant, Dr Gordie Jones, dry cow management is the single most important phase of production and one which if correctly managed will reduce levels of ketosis, displaced abomasums and milk fever.

"Most dairies look to have a displaced abomasum goal of 4-6%, but the goal should be 1%. One in 300 calvings is what I want to see in cows. If a cow gets sick on a farm it's because someone has done a job wrong – it's not the cow's fault," said Dr Jones who also owns a 3400-head Jersey herd in Wisconsin, and designed the world renowned 65,000-cow Fair Oaks Dairy in Indiana.

Speaking at a Davidson's Animal Feeds meeting in Carlisle, he pointed out that a dry cow ration based on a low-energy, high fibre ration or 'Goldilocks' diet is key to improved health and production.

"Cows need 42days dry and they need a good dry cow ration that relies on quality feeds and more than 50% forage. A Goldilocks dry cow ration should be made up of 4kg DM of grain, wholecrop or barley silage plus 3-4kg DM of straw, chopped short at two inches to prevent sorting."

He said the average dry cow needs 12-13kg with the balance made up of haylage which in turn will provide up to 6kg of fibre. The aim should be to train cows to eat more fibre.

"My own milk cows in Wisconsin will eat 23kg of DM per day with a forage neutral detergent (NDF) from forage alone of 26% which works out the same as what my dry cows are on. The fresh cow is looking for 6kg of NDF from forage which this dry cow ration has trained her to do," he said .

In contrast to some producers who look to 'steam up' their cows on the run up to calving, Dr Jones feeds the same dry cow ration all the way through until calving.

Outwith the transition period, he added that further increases in productivity can be seen with improved nutrition and cow comfort, with the single biggest failure as a dairyman noted in UK herds he has visited being a bare concrete feed bunk by noon.

“You never want a hungry cow. We are in the ’last bite’ business and the last bite the cow eats when she is full is what pushes extra milk. The best cows tend to produce twice as much as the average cows and when you run out of feed, it is the higher yielders which miss out."

Looking at cow comfort he said: "Cows should never be standing around. They should eat and go to bed, eat and go to bed. If a cow is not eating, drinking or being milked, she should be lying down. Cows should only be away from their beds for four hours during the day," he said.

Temperature in the cow shed can also affect cow comfort, and with a cow's favourite temperature being 4degrees, Dr Jones pointed out that clipping cows in the summer and having additional fans in the shed can help to increase dry matter intakes and drive milk yields. His Jersey cow herd in Wisconsin even boasts cold showers or a soaker line to help cool body temperature in the extreme heat of American summers.

"Cows should also be able to lie down in 1min 20seconds, and they can't there is something wrong in the design of your cubicles and or the neck rails. If you have cows with swollen or bare hocks there is also something wrong.

He encouraged producers to avoid cubicle designs which meant cows were facing a wall when lying down as they prefer to see out into an open space and he added that a cow’s backbone should be close and parallel to the loop of the cubicle railing, with the loop being 71-76cm deep.

“Cows need a loop so they do not go sideways and therefore lie in a clean bed, which will reduce mastitis risk. They don't need to be taught to use cubicles. If the cubicles are good enough, they will use them," he said pointing out that rubbed hocks are a sign of not having enough bedding. The bedding material also has to be absorbent and 10cm deep to prevent bacterial growth.

Group size can affect milk production too as cows can learn up to 100 individual cow identities and develop a social order, which at this size often means herds of this size need more than one water source to prevent dominant cows guarding the water trough. Group sizes of between 100 and 200 results in two social orders being developed, and in a group of more than 300 cows, Dr Jones said there is no social order, and individuals just 'make a friend.'