|Sand bedding for transition cows might be worth an additional $165/cow/year in income over feed costs.
Conventional wisdom holds that ration formulation is the key to successful transition cow management. But University of Wisconsin (UW) veterinarian Ken Nordlund says that facilities and labor force management are more important factors.
"We know of many herds that have wonderfully formulated rations for transition cows but still experience problems with herd health during the transition period,” he says. "That tells us that while transition cow rations are important, there are many other factors to consider.”
To emphasize the point, Nordlund notes a UW vet school survey of transition cow management on 50 Wisconsin freestall dairies ranging in size from 300 to 1,600 cows. The survey helped researchers identify five key factors most likely to influence herd production averages and Transition Cow Index (TCI) scores. These include:
On the survey farms, bunk space per cow in transition pens was the single most important factor in determining how well cows performed in the next lactation. "The key concept appears to be that all cows in transition groups need to eat at the same time,” Nordlund says. "If there is insufficient space to allow that to happen, the cows that need to come back later will eat less and are at risk for fresh cow disorders.”
For Holsteins, Nordlund recommends a minimum of 30" of bunk space/cow, but says the average on most dairies is closer to 15".
A major misconception in setups with self-locking stanchions is that one cow can feed at each stanchion. Video studies show that lactating cows fill a row of 24" headlocks to a maximum of 80% during peak feeding periods. "So if you're using 24" stanchions in the transition barn, you have to assume one out of five headlocks won't be used during peak feeding,” Nordlund says.
If you're not set up with 30" stanchions, Nordlund suggests restructuring the close-up cow program. Instead of a 21-day close-up period, move cows into the close-up pen 15 or 16 days before their expected calving date.
Each time a cow is moved to a new pen during the transition period, she has to familiarize herself with new surroundings and reestablish her place in the pecking order. The resulting stress can lead to decreased eating time, increased evictions from the bunk and decreased milk yield. To minimize pen moves, Nordlund advocates leaving cows in the same close-up group from 17 to 25 days before the expected calving date until after calving. "The name of the game is stability,” he says.
For transition cows, width is the key consideration in free-stall design, Nordlund says. While a stall width of 45" has been the industry standard, Nordlund recommends a width of 50" for "big, pregnant” Holsteins. "If the stalls are only 45" wide, there's too much risk that legs and udders of cows in the neighboring stalls will get trampled,” he says. "The disruptions appear to have adverse effects on fresh cow performance. The standard stall doesn't really hold one cow. It holds eight- or nine-tenths of a cow.”
Nordlund notes a significant difference between sand-bedded freestalls and mattresses on the surveyed dairies. "From what we saw, sand is worth over 1,000 points on TCI scores compared to mattresses,” he says. "Our calculations would also suggest this 1,000 points is worth an additional $165 per cow per year in income over feed cost.”
Nordlund adds there's likely a similar economic advantage to using deep straw bedding or some other type of loose bedding material.
Dairies with well-defined protocols in place for regularly monitoring the appetites and attitudes of fresh cows had the highest TCI scores among the survey dairies. "The top dairies had someone watching fresh cows when they returned to the freestall area after milking to see if they would lie down or head to the feedbunk right away to eat,” Nordlund says.
"If cows don't go to the feedbunk, it's a sign their appetite is suppressed and they need attention. The dairies with the most effective programs also closely watch cows at the feedbunk for signs of depression (drooping ears, glossy eyes, etc.) and tend to those cows immediately.
Adequate bunk space makes it easier to observe cows.”
The survey showed that other practices such as comparing fresh-cow milk weights day to day, taking rectal temperatures after milking and observing cows as they're being moved to the milking parlor are less effective ways to monitor appetite and attitude.
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to read the Transition Cow Index.
to read Commingling Dairy Cows: Pen Moves, Stocking Density, and Health.
to read Examination of the Fresh Cows