10 Ways to Improve Early Lactation Performance and Peak Milk Yield

10:16AM Aug 23, 2019
Holstein Dairy Cow Grazing
( Taylor Leach )

Peak milk is the highest recorded test day milk production in a cow’s first 150 days in milk (DIM). Historically, producers used peak milk as a measure of the success of dry period and early lactation nutrition and management. Peak milk indicates how well the cow responds to feeding practices during the dry period, calving and early lactation periods.

Most cows achieve peak milk by 45 to 90 DIM and then slowly lose production over time. Many cite that each added pound of peak milk could lead to 200 to 250 pounds more milk for the whole lactation.

Nutrition and health disorders in early lactation affect peak milk. For example, low dietary fiber diet/sorting can lead to rumen acidosis, which can result in lameness or displaced abomasum. Both conditions can cause reduced peak milk.

Ten ways to improve early lactation performance and peak milk yield.

1. Start cows with a successful dry period

Research shows dry period nutrition and management affects health and performance after birth. Thus, evaluate your dry cow program if you’re unhappy with milk cow performance. Key goals for dry cows include:

  • Maintaining dry matter intake (28 to 32 pounds per day)

  • Avoiding overfeeding energy

  • Preventing body condition score (BCS) gain

  • Optimizing comfort

  • Addressing hoof health

2. Prevent subclinical milk fever

Reduce the risk of subclinical milk fever (low blood calcium) during the first week of lactation. Low blood calcium (less than 8.0 milligrams deciliter) correlates with the following.

  • Ketosis

  • Higher somatic cell count

  • Delayed uterine involution

  • Metritis

  • Depressed feed intake

  • Reduced milk yield

3. Optimize feed intake immediately after calving

  • Provide 10 to 15 gallons of warm water with drinkable drench.

  • Allow access to fresh total mixed ration.

  • Provide 5 to 10 pounds of alfalfa/grass hay.

  • Keep the feed bunks clean and fresh.

4. Optimize cow comfort

To optimize cow comfort in the fresh cow group:

  • Use a stocking rate at 80 to 85 percent of capacity.

  • Keep cows in a fresh cow group for 14 to 21 days.

  • Provide 30 to 36 inches of bunk space per cow.

  • Reduce social stress (especially for first calf heifers).

  • Prevent cows from separating from the normal herd mates.

  • Invest in cow cooling for dry and lactating cows.

5. Maintain rumen health and prevent ruminal acidosis

  • Provide a flake of alfalfa/grass hay for the first five days after calving. Early lactation diet should contain plenty of good quality digestible fiber (31 to 35 percent neutral detergent fiber).

  • Maintain fiber mat with consistent feed intake and avoid empty bunks.

  • Provide free choice buffer, and monitor buffer intake.

  • Minimize the risk of slug feeding or diet sorting that may result in rumen acidosis (low rumen pH; sour stomach).

6. Identify cows with a history of metabolic or health problems

Cows with a history of milk fever, ketosis or mastitis are likely to face these problems again. Keeping an eye on cows prone to health problems allows you to help prevent these problems.

For example, move cows carrying twins or first calf heifers into the dry group early. Data shows a correlation with a 7- to 10- day earlier calving date.  

7. Evaluate BCS

The target BCS at calving is 3.0-3.25. You should avoid having cows reach a BCS greater than 4. A lower BCS at calving allows for 0.5 to 1.0 units of BCS within herd variation. This provides a safety margin to avoid overweight cows that:

  • Have a higher risk for ketosis and fatty liver.

  • Are often more difficult to breed back.

8. Position feed additives

Fresh cow groups are most likely to offer a return on investments for feed additives. Studies support the following additives:

  • Ionophores increase glucose availability.

  • Rumen-protected choline improves liver health and function.

  • Protected amino acids meet amino acid requirements without overfeeding protein.

  • Supplemental protected fat increases energy intake.

  • Yeast culture stabilizes rumen fermentation.

9. Avoid anti-nutritional factors

Anti-nutritional factors include feeds containing mold, wild yeast and poorly fermented feeds. Mold counts over 100,000 colonies per gram likely decrease feed intake and diet digestibility.

10. Feed correct amounts of antioxidants

Antioxidants (for example, vitamin E and selenium) help reduce the impact of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress could be too much fat mobilization, poor air quality or injury. These all decrease the efficiency of immune system function.