URBANA, Ill. -- "Steaming-up" dairy cows during their dry period by increasing grain intake has become the dominant practice for producers over the last 15 years. However, University of Illinois research indicates it is not only misguided, but potentially detrimental to the animal's health.

"We have found that the practice of 'steaming-up' can help create a whole complex of disorders and diseases," explained Jim Drackley, a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, who has spent 17 years working on the question. "Among the potential problems are milk fever, ketosis, fatty liver, retained placenta, displaced abomasums,and infectious diseases.

"But when you follow another plan -- feeding a high-roughage and low-energy diet that allows dry cows to meet their energy requirements without excess, you can avoid those problems."

The dairy cow's "dry" period occurs prior to calving. During this short period of time, the cow is not producing milk but is expected to give birth to a healthy calf, stay healthy herself, and start producing significant amounts of milk after calving.

"Steaming-up" by, in essence, over-feeding cows during this period, is a "dogma," Drackley said that has taken on a life of its own over the past 15 years despite increasing evidence, both in the United States and Europe, that it is counter-productive.

Drackley noted that Keenan, an Irish dairy firm, has been using the high-roughage/low-energy approach for about five years after pioneering it in France.

"Their field experience and our tests here at the U of I, and field experience by some nutritional consultants in the United States, have produced similar results. The results are tremendously positive," he said.

Drackley continues to work on the approach in ongoing research projects.

"We're trying to test the concept against alternatives, and we're also developing mechanistic information -- how it works in the cow," he said.

"Interestingly, we believe the research is strongly related to similar problems in humans, specifically on obesity and Type II diabetes," Drackley said. "That's because the excess energy taken in by cows with the 'steaming-up' diet eventually goes somewhere in their bodies. It is stored as fat in internal tissues that can't be seen.

"The same thing happens in humans, so this research might have some benefit for people as well as cows."

Drackley's research has been supported by the Fats and Proteins Research Foundation, the USDA National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program, USDA's Health and Disease research funds, and the Illinois Council for Food and Agricultural Research.

SOURCE: News release from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.