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10 tips for the dairy cow around transition time 

In farms up and down the country, farmers and their cows are preparing for the spring ahead. The dairy cow is really an extraordinary animal. She is coming up to the big metabolic challenge of calving and the transition period. Wherefrom being dry she starts milking and goes through a huge metabolic challenge. Brewing colostrum in her udder from 14 -7 days from calving and then beginning her lactation cycle from almost a standing start.

A good transition sets her up for not only her lactation but even dramatically impacts her ability to go back in calf.

With her food intake dropping as she approaches calving, she must then begin to match her input (feed DMI dry matter intake) with her outputs (milking) over the next 5-6 weeks after calving.

If you look at when we see the most cow health issues on a dairy farm it is around this transition period.

Dairy cows go through a natural physiological metabolic stress and immune function drops at this time. It makes them much more prone to picking up infections and disease. It can often be a time where we can see an increase in individual cows getting issues or in extreme cases herd incidence of disease like pneumonia.

We can do little to dramatically alter body condition with 4 weeks to go before calving. However, it still means we can pull out thin cows or cows expecting twins for special attention even just more space.

“Body condition scoring is a long term strategy for your farm that can deliver real results”

So with transition looming on Irish dairy farms here are some areas to focus on.

  1. Monitor disease

Simple things like mastitis or metritis (womb infections) can tell us a lot about how our transition is going. These diseases are like icebergs for the underlying wellness of the herd. An increase in any disease must be noted and acted on quickly.

A lot of clinical mastitis may be down to things like poor hygiene in the freshly calved cow’s environment. Or may indicate issues with herd immunity like low blood calcium (subclinical milk fever) or significant negative energy (ketosis).

A very important indicator for herds is metritis (cows getting dirty) or holding cleanings. The target for metritis under 4% and retained placentas under 2%. Dirty wombs can indicate a large metabolic dip (negative energy) and immunosuppression. They can also indicate calcium issues or very rarely selenium vit E deficiency.

My advice is to take note of disease incidence in freshly calved cows and ask why it could be happening.

With the challenge to reduce antibiotic usage on the farm, when we treat anything we need to think why? This might have happened. Work with your vet around disease issues and get them to help you build a farm-specific health plan.

Good farming of the future will involve recording diseases and monitoring. The focus must be on proactive strategies to improve cow health.

  1. Give them space

The dairy cow is a simple animal in some ways. She likes to eat, lie down and ruminate. In between times she will be milked and spend a small amount of time mooching around and socializing. Indoors we must maximize lying times which will maximize rumination and cow health. Having a bed per cow is essential. This also means that cubicles are comfortable and the right size.

Getting cows outdoors early if the conditions are suitable to allow the cow to optimize these biological needs easier. However long milking times and walking distances are not without their challenges for the freshly calved grass-based cow.

However, for many dairy cows, they calve and transition indoors. It really is a false economy if we cut on beds and space. It can do many things from simply having cows standing longer to serious disruption to food intakes (DMI) at an absolutely key time.

Feed space is another thing that must be maximized in the transition cow indoors. Both dry cows and freshly calved cows require space 660cm (your black and white 600 kg cow). There can be variances of course with cow type. Where there is a mixed bag of big and small cows on-farm that can make it difficult to provide consistency around the right size cubicle for example down to huge variances in metabolic needs.

Also, watch your feed rail as too often I’ve seen them positioned wrong (too low) meaning cows have to push hard against it during feeding. People have laughed at me measuring cows before measuring cubicles but there are some significant differences in ladies out there.

The most important group to give space to is your 1st calvers. Transitioning for them brings the same challenges with the added stress of integrating into the herd. They are smaller quieter and are prone to social dominance. They like a bit of TLC and the timing of introduction to the herd makes a difference. Some experts suggest an introduction to the dry cow group in 8-6 weeks out while others say a last-minute introduction with the above space being met is also an option. While larger farms have had success managing them as a separate group. My own opinion is introduction early in the dry period is the most practical.

Space indoors also is not just about lying and feeding. It can be about cross overs and general loafing areas to allow normal herd dominance and hierarchies to play out. Of course I am a strong advocate for optimizing biology of the animals, but also long term it will keep them in the herd longer (profitable). It also is improving environmental efficiency, which is going to be a key driver for farming businesses of the future. In fact, watch this space the environment will be a key driver for every business of the future.

I know some farmers will say I’m not paying for the concrete, but space is a long term investment that keeps paying back.

In loose accommodation also dry cows do well but we must get drainage right and don’t spare the straw.

  1. Don’t push turnout if things aren’t right!

For many farms, success is a good early spring with turnout at calving time. Last spring was a great example of success! Having adequate covers built to support DMI and supplement the gap where needed. Many times I have seen the “must turnout” model go wrong where cows didn’t have the DMIs or the weather conditions for them to transition in.

Plan and monitor your transition around weather (severe weather conditions) and grass availability. This plays hugely into maximizing freshly calved cows DMIs.

One problem I have seen reoccurring on these farms who turnout in poor conditions and poor covers is displaced stomachs amongst other things.

If mixing out by day in by night, really look at silage quality and potential DMIs to make sure the cow is maximizing these. Match the energy gaps as best you can in the weeks after calving. This means it is essential to know what forage quality is like.

Something I would have done is go out in a morning milking with keto sticks to check ketones in milk. We can also review milk records and protein% and fat: protein ratios for evidence of negative energy. The gold standard for me was using handheld ketometers in groups of freshly calved cows to monitor negative energy.

If transitioning on forages only indoors, again understand what your feeding (quality) mix of energy and protein is essential.

Later in the spring, I will cover these individual topics again, but this is just reminders of areas that need focus.

It is also worth remembering meal is not expensive in early lactation and that a kg of meal (concentrates) takes up the same space as 4-5 kgs of forage fresh weight depending on dry matter %. So remembering cows need to build their ability to ingest large fresh weights, concentrates are an important bridge as she increases her intake.

In simple terms, she will only be able to eat so much, but will also have huge energy demands, so supplements make sense.

Get your advisor or nutritionist to work with you to ensure you have a good handle on covers, demand, and appropriate stocking rates. Grass quality also must be considered.

Doing this well will leave money in your pocket and somewhat beyond the scope of this article and my skillsets.

  1. Watch calcium

The most important mineral in a spring calving grass-based system is calcium. While we set targets for milk fever at <2% it is only the tip of the iceberg. The main effects of low blood calcium in freshly calved cows are immunosuppression (fewer neutrophils white cells produced) and also muscle weakness affecting everything from DMI to increased stomach displacements.

Remember the womb is a big muscle so cows that have slow calvings, calcium can be considered a risk.

A cow cannot consume enough calcium to meet her biological needs post-calving, so nature helps her by flushing calcium from the bone into her bloodstream. This is “Krebs cycle 101”.

Lots of other minerals play a role in this process. In Ireland potassium (found to be high in a lot of our silages >2%), also magnesium which is key to helping flush out this calcium (hence we feed magnesium pre-calving). Feeding high levels of calcium in the dry cow diet can also negatively affect Krebs cycle. This is why some people advocate zero calcium diets or using calcium binders pre-calving.

For some grass-based spring systems calcium is a big issue in my opinion (even if we can’t see it).

I will come back to visit calcium over the coming weeks as I fell it is critical to a healthy lactation cycle. I’m only skimming the surface for now.

You can assess your on-farm risk with your vets, advisors, and nutritionists. Look at dry cow silage analysis as a minimum starting point. Then review milk fever % and early indicators like increased metabolic disease and even things like metritis.

Most success can be got in my experience from looking at balancing the DCAB (dietary cation-anion balance). I found measuring urine Ph. a useful tool.

Calcium boluses work very well (at the point of calving and after) for at-risk ladies. I really believe with good management the target for milk fever should be under 1%.

  1. Manage minerals

Minerals can sometimes get overemphasized in dairy cow health, or more so blamed unnecessarily.  At transition time they do play a key role in animal health and performance. We must start by asking the question of why we are supplementing. Is it based on need or is it because this is what we always did.

Knowing your forage and soil deficiencies can play a key role in what your cows might need. While a good dry cow mineral being used for 6-8 weeks pre-calving is a good start. Some farms who are blaming minerals need to look at what’s there and what’s not.

Every farm can be different that is why a one fits all model can fail. My experience of silage analysis and 2x herbage analysis (May/September) provide a good starting point. Also, put some thought into how you deliver minerals to dry cows.

You need balanced supplementation. By far the greatest minerals farmers need to focus on first is calcium. Then it’s about fine-tuning the others. Remember also with very poor magnesium stores and a drop in intakes in the 24-48 hours before calving can actually be a risk for increased milk fever. (Back to having a calcium plan for your herd).

In our dry cow diet, we want low calcium, high magnesium (0.4% DMI) and low potassium.

Again I will come back to minerals in more detail but they play an important role in dry cow health.

  1. Clean water

Often the forgotten nutrient as it plays a key role in cell biology and rumen health. Remember the rumen is a large fermentation bath and requires lots of fresh clean water.

Cattle like clean water like ourselves and bad bugs aren’t good. Have plenty of water drinkers indoors especially for freshly calved cows. Before calving a cow will drop intakes of water as she goes into labor. Fast rehydration after calving is important.

Have deep drinkers with good flow rates. Have enough of them and space around them so shy heifers can get in for a drink.

  1. DMI is key

A dry cow’s dry matter intake DMI drops the week before calving by up to 30-40%. This can mean intakes of 8-12 kgs of dry matter (it varies cow size etc). Of course, the right balance of energy, protein and fibre in this is key. She then needs to dramatically increase her intakes post-calving to match the energy outputs of new milk production.

We can measure this (energy) on-farm using systems like UFL or ME. The key thing to remember is there always a gap (negative energy) we must naturally deal with. On-farm one of our key objectives must be to maximize the dry matter intakes in freshly calved cows. A good nutritionist/advisor is worth their weight in gold. They can help work out intakes vs outputs.

DMI precalving must also contain upwards of 13-14% crude protein (amino acids being the key building blocks) to ensure good colostrum quality and production.

The diet itself is key and beyond the scope of what I’m covering today. Just remember that she must eat lots. She also can only eat so much dry matter when freshly calved, so it is a great time to match supplementation with concentrates.

Example: a cow eating 12 kgs of DM grass roughly 50-60kg fresh weight can still have room for 4-5 kgs of concentrate with max 8 kgs being fed in two separate feeds.

Example: a cow who has a hard calving won’t feel like eating. Pain killers and oral fluids with propylene glycol or energy drinks (commercial preparations) can be a great kick start.

Have enough high-quality feed (grass or forage) in front of the freshly calved cow. Remember what I said about space is critical.

  1. Up the game on hygiene

Infectious disease management is a battle between infection pressure (amount of infection/bacteria animals are exposed to) and immunity (the ability to fight any infections).

Good cubicle and yard hygiene are critical for the freshly calved cow. Get ventilation right in sheds and frequently run scrapers.

In Ireland, we have damp and wet winters (perfect conditions for the bugs) so work hard on keeping things clean.

Any farm dealing with infectious lameness in the winter months must consider regular footbathing. The critical things are footbath design, cow flow, and passages through a suitable solution.

Start the year with a good milking routine. Predipping is a good practice where issues with hygiene indoors aren’t where they should be. Post teat dipping is a must, with the right agent.

  1. Spend time with the cows look at dung

It’s a sh!t job but someone has to do it. Watch your cows dung it can tell us a lot. The dry cow dung indoors should be firm, while on grass it can be much looser. The big debate is how loose is still ok. Butterfat can be an indicator along with things like PICA around issues with rumen health.

The big culprits for loose dung are not enough fibre, high oils in the diet or issues with parasites.

This article is not about drilling into the causes because this requires farm-specific knowledge and looking deeper under the hood.

Great use of time, is a daily walk through cows indoors not just looking at dung but looking at lameness and general cow health.

  1. Colostrum quality

This is going to be the big driver for calf health and also future herd performance. Colostrum not only primes the immune system of the young calf it plays a role (epigenetics) in lifetime performance. Having energy and protein (13-14% ) balanced in the last 14-10 days before calving really can impact on colostrum quality.

Another incredibly important reason to understand and use your forage analysis.

Supplementation with energy and protein may be required with forages fed if they aren’t up to scratch. Restricting dry cow diets 2-3 weeks out from calving is a big no-no in my opinion. It will do little to alter body condition and nothing for foetal size. Very fat cows also need minding and are products like kexxtone boluses that can help aid their transition. Talk to your own vet about your options here.

Measuring colostrum quality is a simple technique that can be used to assess quality for the calf but also at herd level looking at dry cow diet. At a minimum check, the first 5-10 cows calved quality to see if diet and management are delivering quality?

Conclusion

I had only 10 tips, so I really just scratched the surface. The importance of hoof health is also key at transition, in fairness focusing on the above will indirectly improve hoof health around transition.

Also, this article is not about debating the best system. This spring you have your system and cow type. Maximize their needs within this system and maximize cow health.

Transition management is vast and sometimes complicated, this was to highlight areas of effort that will return investment in time, money and have happier healthier cows.

Happy safe farming

For more information about training events and workshops, I am offering this year contact me on tommythevetie@gmail.com

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