It Takes More Than Water to Keep Dry Cows Comfortable

Date of publication : 2/16/2009
Source : University of Minnesota Dairy Extension

"If your cows are dry, they should be turned out and given water." I heard that statement as a joke many years ago when I was just a kid on the home dairy farm. No doubt, cows need water during their dry period. It's one of their basic requirements. It's part of what is needed to keep them comfortable. Dry cows need 20-30 gallons of water per day. The water needs to be fresh, clean and free of contaminants. But, keeping dry cows comfortable involves much more than making sure they have adequate water. Dry cows must receive the same level of care as the milk producing cows. They must not be neglected.

It is important to recognize that during the transition from lactating to dry, and from the dry period to lactation, the dairy cow is under enormous stress both physically and metabolically. Dry cow facilities should be designed to maximize cow comfort, minimize stress and physical injuries during all seasons of the year. Good dry cow housing must keep cows clean, cool, dry and comfortable in order to reduce exposure of teat ends to environmental pathogens and control of environmental mastitis during the dry period. Allowing dry cows to be housed in areas of puddles and wet manure packs will increase the percent of udders infected at freshening.

Typical dry cow groups are:

  • 1. From dry off until 3 weeks before calving

  • 2. Prefresh cows from 3 weeks before calving until calving--Housing should allow for frequent observation and be convenient to the maternity area

  • 3. One dry cow group--Some producers have shortened the dry period, most commonly to 40-45 days. It is very important to balance the diet properly for all cows in the group. Keep track of due dates to be sure close-up cows especially are as comfortable as possible.

Overstocking can lead to problems in the dry period and early lactation when cows are still making the transition into lactation. Transition cows may not seek feed as aggressively or compete for stall space because they are recovering from calving and the physical challenges they are undergoing. If dry cows are housed using a bedded pack resting area, the space should be around 100 sq ft/cow. For dry cows in freestalls, allow me to restate the recommendations previously printed in the article entitled, Cow Comfort Affects Somatic Cell Counts. Nigel Cook, UW-Madison, recommended providing at least one stall per cow.




Total length facing wall


Head to head platform


Rear of curb to brisket board


Stall width


Height of brisket board


Height of lower divider rail


Height below neck rail


Rear curb to neck rail


*minus width of rear curb in sand stalls


The stall surface, with bedding, should be free of "potholes." Cows must be able to freely lunge either forward or to the side of the stall, otherwise cows may eventually stop using the stall.

In summer, heat stress during the period cows are dry can result in reduced calf birth weights, reduced milk production, lower IgG concentrations in colostrum and increased incidence of periparturient disorders. Research shows that simply shading dry cows during the summer increases production during the following lactation.

In addition to stall size, a key feature of comfort to the cow is bedding. Straw, sawdust, sand or shredded newspaper can all work well. Keeping stalls well-bedded maximizes moisture absorption, adds resilience, makes stalls comfortable, increases usage and reduces potential for injury.

The housing's ventilation system should prevent high humidity in winter and heat build-up in summer. S igns of inadequate air flow include: air that smells of ammonia, presence of cobwebs, excessive coughing, nasal discharge or open-mouthed breathing by the cows. In hot weather, cows prefer stalls with good air movement. If air movement is inadequate, cows may lie elsewhere, most often on a wet surface in an effort to increase the rate of heat dissipation from their bodies.

All walking surfaces should be skid-resistant to reduce injuries, and increase mobility to feed, water and resting areas. All concrete should be grooved to make it less slippery. Be sure to smooth off any rough or sharp surfaces to prevent hoof injury.

Adequate exercise is essential for maintaining cow muscle tone and normal body functions as well as reducing the possibility of displaced abomasums. Non-exercised cows have a higher incidence of calving related problems, mastitis and leg problems. Dry cows need to get off concrete. Provide a dry lot environment with reduced bacterial populations. There needs to be adequate trees or portable shade. The lot should be well drained. Fence off all ponds, streams, swampy areas and ditches.

Feed dry cows separately from the rest of the herd. They do not compete well for feed bunk space, which would limit their intake at this critical stage and increase their risk of metabolic disorders. Dry cow feed bunk spacing needs:

  • Self feeder - 6"/cow
  • Mixed ration - 27"/cow
  • Once-a-day feeding - 30"/cow

In conclusion, the management of dry cows needs as much planning and attention as that of milking cows. Proper dry cow management provides the foundation for a successful lactation.


By Neil Broadwater, Regional Extension Educator-Dairy
Dairy Connection Articles - University of Minnesota Dairy Extension

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