There probably isn’t a dairy farm on the planet—or in the solar system, for that matter—that hasn’t struggled with transition cow management at one time or another.
"As early as the 1920s, there was interest in better preparing the dairy cow for lactation, and ‘steam up’ feeding of some concentrates prior to calving was advocated," says Robert Van Saun, an Extension veterinarian with Penn State University. He spoke Saturday at World Dairy Expo’s educational seminar series.
Ever since, dairy farmers, veterinarians, nutritionists and researchers have been tweaking dry cow rations and management strategies. The first rule is to do no harm. "Never fix anything that is not broken," says Van Saun. "At the same time, how do you know if things are broken?"
Here are some keys:
• Higher than normal cull rates and deaths in the first 60 days after calving.
• Higher than normal rates of fresh cow mastitis.
• Higher than normal rates of retained placentas.
• Higher than normal rates of non-treatable ketosis.
• Higher than normal rates of respiratory disease and/or high fevers.
The ideal transition diet promotes good rumen function, provides sufficient metabolizable energy and protein, promotes dry matter intake before and after calving, and promotes a strong immune system, says Van Saun. "Protein may be the most under appreciated transition diet nutrient. The National Research Council guidelines call for less than 12% crude protein," he says.
"But I believe you should maintain a minimum of 12% (1,100 to 1,300 grams of metabolizable protein) to ensure proper fiber fermentation," Van Saun says. "At the same time, most dry cow diets have 14% crude protein, so many farmers are over-feeding protein during transition."
And while farmers and their nutritionists focus on diet, dry cow management and environment may have the greatest impact on transition cow health after calving.
Multiple and constant pen movements can disrupt the social structure of dry cow groups, placing them in constant turmoil as cows are added to and exit the group. If at all possible, groups should be kept stable and small. Heifers should also be separated from second lactation and older cows, and be brought to the dry pen 40 days before calving. Van Saun advocates a dry period of at least 45 days for second and later-lactation cows, but no more than 60 days.
Dry cows should never be over-crowded, with a stocking rate of 80% to 85%. They should also have 30" of bunk space per cow. Headlocks might be preferred because they offer consistent spacing at the feed bunk. If a post and rail system is used, the rail should be 48" above the floor to allow cows adequate access to feed. If cows are housed in freestalls, the stalls for second and later lactation cows should be 50" in width.
"The best transition cow management is characterized by a well-balanced diet, consumed with minimal intake decline and delivered in a stress-free environment allowing the cow to express her normal behaviors," summarizes Van Saun.
The Transition Cow Seminar was sponsored by QualiTech, Inc.