The fundamentals of dry cow management
Dairy cows are subject to natural dips in immune system functioning that need to be taken into consideration when evaluating herd health and treatment.

By Dr. Paul Dettloff, DVM

Editor's note:

Paul Dettloff

Dr. Paul Dettloff has been practicing veterinary medicine since 1967 and working with organic dairy producers since 1988. He currently serves as staff veterinarian for Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative and is an internationally recognized authority on organic livestock health.

His columns on organic dairy herd health appear in the CROPP Cooperative Herd Health Bulletin, and are reprinted here by permission.

Sources for organic veterinary supplies

Note: and Organic Valley do not endorse or recommend any company or product and this is not a complete list. Before purchase or use of any product ALWAYS confirm that it is acceptable with your certification agency.

PO Box 735
Easton, PA 18044
tel: 610-250-9280
Animal health products, nutritional supplements.

Arnie's Farm Care
M508 Gavin Ave
Marshfield, WI 54449
tel: 715-387-6603
Nutritional consulting, vitamins and minerals.

Crystal Creek, Inc.
N9466 Lakeside Road
Trego, WI 54888
tel: 715-466-5043 or 888-376-6777
fax: 715-466-5042
Animal health products, nutritional supplements and consulting.

Fastrack-Conklin Co
205 Old Settlers Trail
Poynette, WI 53955
tel: 608-635-4811
Direct-fed microbials.

Impro Products Inc.
R.J. Holliday, DVM
3 Allamakee Street
Waukon, IA 52172
tel: 319-568-3401
Livestock supplements, probiotics, colostrum, whey and consulting.

Northeast Homeopathic Products
563 Massachusetts Ave
Acton, MA 01720-2903
tel: 800-551-3611
Homeopathic pharmaceuticals.

Taurus Service, Inc.
PO Box 164
Grist Flat Rd
Mehoopany, PA 18629
tel: 800-836-5123 or 570-833-5123
Bovine genetics for grass-based dairies.

Washington Homeopathic Products
4914 Del Ray Ave
Bethesda, MD 20814
tel: 800-336-1695
Homeopathic pharmaceuticals.

Additional suppliers of organic livestock materials can be found in OMRI's Brand Name Products List (


November 10, 2005: Managing the dry cow starts during the last trimester of lactation. This is the period when the bovine should be gaining back her body condition after coming off her lactation curve. The last thing anyone wants in a dry-off is an animal that is skin and bone. On the flip side, you do not want an animal that is hog-fat going into her dry period. The last trimester is when you want to control the grain so you can get her body condition where you want it.

A key factor the dairyman must know and be very aware of during the dry period is the two dips in immune function that all female herbivores experience. Immunologists uncovered this in the 1980s, and it has been a well-kept secret in the dairy industry. The two dips take place as follows. At dry-off, the immune function is lowered by the endocrine system. A tight udder triggers the endocrine system to hormonally switch from a lactating animal. The second, bigger and longer drop starts about two weeks before calving and bottoms out at calving. It will take two to three weeks to return to normal. Experts say that in some cows 75 percent of immune function is shut down.

If possible any stress should be avoided during these two times of lowered immune function. Vaccinations should be avoided during dry-off and around freshening. Unfortunately, these two time frames have been widely adopted as times to vaccinate for everything and anything in the dairy world. Avoid these windows at all costs.

The dry cow should have a high-forage diet with at least 10 pounds of dry hay for good rumen function. The potassium level in the forage should be monitored. A correct balance is to approach a one-to-one ratio with calcium and potassium. This may be hard to do. If one can get the calcium levels above 1 percent to 1.4 percent on a dry matter basis and the potassium in the low 2 percent range this is acceptable.

Minerals, calcium and phosphorus should always be available free choice. The ratios will be determined by the forages fed. A good level of selenium and traces should be available also. In the winter, a good level of vitamins should be supplemented. A target figure would be to have your animals on 100,000 to 200,000 IU (international units) of vitamin A per head per day. The vitamins D and E should be supplemented as well.

Because of the natural dips in the immune system, if you want to upgrade immune function follow these tips:

If you are ever going to want to kick up the cow’s immune system for one month to affect the next 11 months, the time to do it is the four weeks just before calving. I prefer 2 ounces of kelp meal mixed 50% with Redmond Natural Salt. You can also put this in the TMR or some have chosen to just free choice it. Salt in the loose form should also be provided. I like the unrefined natural products.

A second way to put the immune system in high gear is to add some aloe vera pellets to the ration. Levels of two to four ounces are commonly used. More and more organic dairymen are using this during the big immune function dip. They typically start about two weeks before calving. The window starting one week after dry-off is the time to do your mastitis, somatic cell and dry-cow mastitis clean up. This is when you become proactive. Any high cell count or mastitis problem cow is attacked at this time.

I like to go on a regimen of a whey product SQ (subcutaneous) of about 30 cc by the tail head. Hit them with 300 cc oral drench of antioxidant tincture for three days. They should also go on a garlic tincture either orally or vaginally for three days. During this three-day time period, strip them out two to four times a day to flush and clean the udder. If a few more days are required, continue with this regimen. This may be repeated in a few weeks when the udder has shrunk down.

Any animal that has had a history of udder trouble or has excessive udder swelling in the immediate pre-fresh state should be considered for pre-milking. Start 10 to 20 days before freshening if you suspect mastitis or just lots of edema. Bring her into the milking line, wash her up and spend some time massaging and washing her at first to stimulate oxytocin let-down. The first two or three times you may get nothing, but usually they will let down. Milk her to see what you have; if it is bad, keep milking and treating her. Go right up to and through calving. Colostrum will be there, as it’s formed at calving and not before.

You are doing three things:

  1. Cleaning up the colostrum by getting the dead cells and debris (pus) out of the system.
  2. Cleaning out the mastitis and treating her at the same time.
  3. Reducing udder edema.

Do not use any whey products two weeks before calving as you may precipitate calving--whey can do this. Grain feeding to the dry cow is based on body conditioning as said previously, this is not the time to get them hog-fat. Introduction of a little grain before calving is fine for a thin cow or to get her slowly up to speed before calving. The less you disturb a cow during her four-week immune dip the better off you are.

When I am consulting and encounter a high-production, high-grain, highly acidic, overly vaccinated BGH herd I will focus on the three weeks after calving to evaluate what level their immune function is at, and invariably their sick cows and death loss will be highest shortly after calving. Organic graziers and high-forage feeders may not realize the many long-term benefits you get by raising your cows' immune function. Prevention is a key strategy and reducing stress during this critical time will go a long way towards improving the overall health of the herd.