Body condition at calving and the performance of dairy cows in early lactation under Australian conditions: A review

Stockdale, C.R.

Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 41(6): 823-839


Accession: 010251919

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With the current increases in genetic merit and feeding occurring at farm level, dairy cows are under increasing nutritional stress in early lactation. Cows obtain their energy at this time from the feeds they eat and from body reserves. The relationship between body condition at calving and productivity of dairy cows has been reviewed, with particular emphasis on interactions between body condition and nutrition in early lactation. Recent research on the influence of body condition at calving on subsequent milk productivity, conducted mainly in the United Kingdom with complete diets fed indoors, has produced results in apparent conflict with the previous results from southern Australia and New Zealand where cows grazed pasture. In particular, the overseas research suggests considerably less advantage to improvements in body condition than had been previously thought. It is concluded that more information is needed concerning the interaction between body condition at calving and nutrition in early lactation, with dietary energy and protein both being important. There is a suggestion that, when complete diets are fed, it is better to achieve high energy concentrations in post-calving diets by the use of high-fibre concentrates with a fat supplement, rather than with high-starch concentrates. This has implications for dairying in Australia, since cereal grains are the major energy supplement used on many farms in early lactation and recent research has indicated that immediate marginal milk production responses to the use of concentrates may be poorer with fat cows than with thin cows. Reports from controlled feeding experiments indicate that fat cows need more dietary protein than thin cows and undegradable dietary protein might be of more concern than rumen degradable protein. However, in dairy systems where pasture is a considerable proportion of the diet, benefits of supplying specific undegradable dietary protein supplements still need to be established. Recent research has suggested that pasture appears to provide considerable quantities of undegradable dietary protein, even though the crude protein in pasture is potentially highly degradable in the rumen. Body condition at calving may also affect subsequent reproductive performance. This is due to its association with the degree of negative energy balance occurring in early lactation and because fat cows may be more susceptible to metabolic disease(s). While the mechanisms involved are probably quite complex, increases in animal productivity will generate more stress in cows at a time of their annual cycle when stress needs to be minimised. Further understanding is required to link the relevancy of overseas research to Australian dairy farming conditions where pasture is a key input.