By Dr Cara Campbell, SAC Consulting

Winter may be a few months off yet but there are areas on the farm that you can start thinking about during the late summer months to be prepared for the cows moving from grazing to housing.

Whilst the cows are out at grass, now is a good opportunity to spend some time identifying areas for improvement in the cubicles and checking feed access.

Cubicles should promote cow comfort; a quick knee test can determine if the cubicle surface is comfortable. Stand at the back of the cubicle and drop to your knees, if you can do this without pain then the surface is comfortable for the cows.

Comfortable cubicles promote higher lying times, lower lameness incidents and therefore improve production. Feed access is important to check to ensure there is plenty of space for cows to eat regularly without competing to get to the feed.

Dairy cows should have at least 0.6m space per cow at the feed barrier, correct spacing will allow for optimum intakes. Limiting space per cow at the feed barrier can see a reduction in milk production and potentially affect fertility of cows. Less dominant cows and smaller heifers will suffer the most.

The transition from a predominantly grass based diet to a TMR-based diet needs to be carefully considered to ensure production is maintained. Whilst grazing, cows experience regular changes in the quality of fresh grass whereas TMR is less variable, which will help maintain milk yields and milk composition.

However, milk production may drop when the diet of a cow changes due to the microbes present within the rumen having to adapt. Microbes take up to three weeks to adapt to a new diet, during this time there may be higher nutrient losses as the feed is not being utilised as efficiently by the microbes. Therefore, it is key to think about how the transition for the cows can be gradual and easy to make your herd as productive as possible as the cows move indoors.

Now is a time to start planning the winter diets, the first step is to evaluate the quantity of forage available on farm. A simple way to assess quantity is to measure the volume of silage in the clamp, remember dry matter will influence the density of silage and therefore the total tonnes of dry matter available.

The second step would be to analyse silage. First cut silage will be ready to be analysed following a period of fermentation within the clamp – silage can be tested after six weeks in the clamp.

Silage analysis will provide key information about the quality of silage which can aid when buying appropriate concentrates to complement the silage. Getting the ration correct from the start of housing will help yields remain steady over the transition period of grazing to TMR.

Due to the challenges with the weather since autumn 2019, there may be issues with straw supplies with a predicated drop in yield by 20-30% for 2020. Prices may vary due to availability; therefore, it is important to plan ahead and consider the amount of straw required for the winter months.

The weeks leading up to housing also provide an opportunity to get on top of any digital dermatitis within the herd so consider starting your foot bathing regime two to three weeks prior to housing. Having digital dermatitis under control at housing will slow the spread of infection and lower impacts on milk yields.

Remember to check cows regularly and monitor digital dermatitis over the transition to housing. So, the key areas to consider as we head towards winter are cubicle comfort, feed access, forage quantity and quality on farm, diets and lameness.

A smooth transition from grazing to housing is vital to maintain milk production and being prepared for the winter months is key.

Get ready for winter and start planning the winter rations to maximise milk production as cows move indoors.

Dr Cara Campbell

SAC Consulting –