Dairy Body Condition: Part 1

  1. Fairfarmhand
    I\'ve been checking out my poor little Jersey cow. She has been very thin for quite awhile, and since she calved, she has gotten downright pitiful. I read about body condition and worried over her, since the scales that I was looking at said that she would never breed back and would not be healthy with her current condition.

    Then, I was delighted to learn a new fact about Body Condition Scoring. There are two different scales for scoring cows based upon body condition! I was quite relieved and smacking myself on the forehead for this obvious oversight. Of course, beef and dairy cows should be judged differently because they both have extremely different body types.

    Differences Between Dairy and Beef Bodies

    Dairy cows usually have angular, bonier bodies and hips with huge udders for great milk production. Beef cows have rounder, fuller bodies and much more padded hips with smaller udders. In other words, dairy cows are more like Dolly Parton, and beef cows are more like Jennifer Lopez or Beyonce. Their genetics determine their body types, and you shouldn\'t compare the two. Dairy cows are always going to look skinner than beef cows, and they can be perfectly healthy doing so.

    Dairy Cows Need Extra Food

    You should keep an eye on your dairy cow\'s body condition throughout the year. On our farm, we\'ve learned that our Jersey cows have a more difficult time keeping their body condition. They tend to put more of their nutrition into their milk production, so we really have had to be proactive in feeding them differently from our beef cows.

    One big mistake some people make when using a dairy breed of cow on their farm is to feed them very little to no grain during lactation. Some people really like the grass-fed movement, and that\'s their right. However, what these well-intentioned folks are forgetting is that Holsteins and Jerseys have been bred for generations to need rich food to produce and survive. If you\'re wanting 100% grass fed animals, you need to choose a different breed, a beefier breed for your milk cow. Your Jersey or Holstein will suffer if you don\'t carefully learn about nutrition. It is rare to find a pure dairy breed that can maintain good body condition on grass and hay alone.

    If your cows are too thin, they will be more prone to metabolic problems at calving, like ketosis and milk fever. They will be less likely to conceive, and if they do conceive, they may miscarry the calf. The calves that are born to cows that are too thin will be small, weak, or stunted, and the cow will not have plenty of colostrum for the calf. Additionally, during lactation, your cow may never reach her peak milk production because she is just barely hanging on.

    Supplemental Feeding

    Your dairy cow needs excellent hay and all of it that she wants. She will thrive if you toss a couple of flakes of alfalfa to her each day, but she needs regular grass hay too. Along with her grass hay, she may need some grain too, or another comparable protein source. Some people prefer to use alfalfa as a protein source and forgo the grain altogether.

    I feed my Jerseys a grain mix that is available in bulk from our feed mill. The general rule of thumb is to feed three pounds of grain per gallon of milk per day, but it can vary a bit for each individual cow. You may have to tinker with the amount to find that sweet spot where your cow is keeping condition and giving good milk. If your lactating cow is getting thin and you need to put some weight on her, try feeding her a pound of beet pulp soaked in water each day. It really seems to help put weight on cows.

    Part 2 of this article will address the particulars of judging your cow\'s body condition and when you need to think about such things.

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