Managing and monitoring the health of transition dairy cows

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Source: University of Minnesota

Quick facts

Monitoring the transition dairy cow helps producers to recognize signs of trouble before it starts.

  • The transition period is 60 days before calving and 30 days after calving.

  • Transition cow management influences health, production, pregnancy rate and longevity of your herd.

  • Negative energy balance occurs after calving when a cow is using more calories than she is eating.

  • Reducing the time spent in a negative energy balance by encouraging feed intake is the most important goal of transition cow management.

The transition period

The transition from late gestation to early lactation is challenging for both animals and dairy producers. Closely managing cows during this time is crucial to making sure transition goes smoothly.

The term “transition” refers to the process of a cow not producing milk (dry cow), calving, and then producing milk. The transition period was traditionally the three weeks before calving and the three weeks following calving. As we learned more about cow physiology, this period expanded to the 60 days before calving and the 30 days following. These 90 days make up the transition period.

Why the transition period matters

Managing cows correctly during the transition period is one of the most important factors for overall farm success. The calorie needs of a milking cow are massive, especially compared to a dry cow.

  • Within the two days after a cow calves, the energy needs of that cow more than double.
  • The metabolic stress associated with the increased energy demand can be dramatic.
  • How the cow handles this stress and moves through the transition period influences her production, health, ability to become pregnant again and ability to remain in the herd.

During the transition period, nutrient requirements increase to support fetal growth and colostrum and milk production. Dairy cows are at greatest risk of developing diseases and conditions leading to involuntary culling during this time. Monitoring the transition dairy cow is important to recognize changes in performance.

The establishment of a routine and a consistent system to collect, analyze and interpret herd records is essential to detect disruptions in performance.

Calorie needs of the transition cow

The main goal of transition cow management is to decrease the amount of time the cow spends in a negative energy balance. The more time a fresh cow spends in a negative energy balance, the higher the probability she will have a health challenge.

What is a negative energy balance

The caloric needs of a recently calved cow (fresh cow) are so significant that most dairy cows do not initially eat enough to make up for the calories they are burning. This mismatch of burning more calories than the cow is taking in is a negative energy balance.

  • In other words, the cow is using more energy than she can acquire through her diet.
  • The cow then takes the energy from the only other place available to her, her own body.
  • This mostly results in accessing body fat stores for conversion to energy.
  • In extreme cases, it can mean the cow degrades muscle and bone as well.

How to prevent transition cow problems

To prevent transition cow problems, we have to reduce the amount of time the cow spends with a negative energy balance. To do that, the cow has to eat.

  • We have to allow the cows to maximize feed intake.
  • Cows need to take in enough calories to balance the scales.
  • Bunk space, pen space, ration, feed mixing, feed delivery, water availability, and many more things impact feed intakes.

How is the transition period related to calcium and milk fever (hypocalcemia)

Detect problems early

Monitoring during the transition period can be used to detect disruptions in performance under existing management conditions or measure the impact of an intervention or change in management. When used correctly, monitoring methods are very important to support management decisions and motivate management or employee behavioral change on a dairy farm.

Monitoring guidelines

Many approaches can be used to monitor the transition dairy cow, depending on farm goals. When establishing a monitoring routine at a dairy farm, choose parameters that are practical and useful to address the problems at hand.

The ideal monitoring routine must:

  • Have a minimum delay between causes and effect (lag).
  • Not mask any recent changes when using historical data (momentum).
  • Detect differences across the population (variation).
  • Not contain misleading information (bias).

Unfortunately, it is not possible to achieve all these features using a single monitored parameter and a combination of parameters is often used to analyze the performance of transition dairy cows.

Appropriate stocking density, depending on breed and parity, is important to prevent negative health and production outcomes in early lactation.

  • Stocking density during the far-off period should not exceed 100 percent of headlocks.
  • For the close-up period the ideal stocking density varies according to breed: 80 percent for Holsteins and up to 100 percent for Jerseys, based on headlocks.

Other cow comfort parameters such as heat abatement and stall design are essential to minimize stress during the transition period. Appropriate stall design, size and bedding management will improve animal use of the beds, improve lying time and improve milk production.

Body condition scoring (BCS) is another simple and effective monitoring parameter that can be used to assess the nutritional status of dairy cows.

  • Determine BCS at dry-off, calving and peak milk production (around 60 days into lactation).
  • If excessive loss or gain of BCS is observed, nutritional changes can be made to remedy the situation.

Monitoring total milk production during the first two to three months of lactation and peak milk production can be useful when assessing a cow’s performance during the transition period.

Unfortunately, monitoring milk production has many limitations including a considerable time between calving and peak milk production. This 50 to 90 day interval is too long to wait to make needed changes to improve animal health and performance.

Do not use peak milk production as a stand-alone parameter to monitor the transition period.

Fresh cow health is critical for their wellbeing and performance. More than 35 percent of all dairy cows, however, have at least one clinical disease event (metabolic or infectious) during the first 90 days in milk.

Because of that, it is recommended to observe fresh cows daily during the first two weeks of lactation. This practice will help you identify sick animals in a timely manner.

Monitoring disease events in the first few weeks of lactation provides a useful insight into how effectively management supports cows during the transition period.

Determining herd alarm levels for disease prevalence is important when monitoring cows during the transition period. See the table below for herd alarm levels and cost per case for the most common diseases observed in dairy cows.

Herd alarm levels and cost per case for dairy cow diseases
Disease Cost per case Herd alarm
Hyperketonemia (subclinical ketosis) $289 15%
Clinical hypocalcemia $150 3%
Subclinical hypocalcemia $150 30%
Displaced abomasum $700 3%
Retained fetal membranes (RP) $232 5%
Metritis $218 10%
Mastitis $376 3%

The prevalence of hyperketonemia, clinical and subclinical hypocalcemia, displaced abomasum, retained fetal membranes and metritis should be calculated as number of cases divided by the number of fresh cows within a month. The prevalence of mastitis is normally calculated as number of clinical cases divided by number of milking cows within a month.

It is important for farmers, veterinarians and nutritionists to routinely monitor the feed of dairy cows as it is delivered to the animals to determine if the feed matches the formulated diets.

Monitoring the feed bunk between feedings and the amount of refusals is important to gather information about sorting and feed push-up frequency.

Feed information can be used to determine necessary management adjustments required to maximize dry matter intake.

Recommended feeding, bunk management and cow management during the transition period

Management practice Goal
Removal of old feed from bunk Daily
Availability of feed at least 23 hours/day
Feed push-up Every 4 hours
Refusals (feed) 3-5%
Eating space at least 24 inches/head
Water availability at least 4 linear inches/head
*Stocking density
Far-off dry cows 100%
**Close-up dry cows 80-100%
Fresh cows 80%
Pre-partum dry matter intake
Primiparous at least 22 lbs/day
Multiparous at least 26 lbs/day
Post-partum dry matter intake
Primiparous at least 34 lbs/days
Multiparous at least 42 lbs/day
Additional cow comfort parameters
Social grouping Separate parity groups
Hock scoring more than 80% of cows without hock lesions
Body condition score
Dry-off 2.75 to 3.5
Calving 2.75 to 3.5
Peak milk production (~60 DIM) 2.5 to 3.25
Cow behavior more than 60% of lying cows chewing their cud 2 hours after feeding

*Stocking density calculated based on headlocks, not stalls.

**Recommended close-up dry cows stocking density varies depending on breed and demographics of the pen. A lower stocking density (80%) is beneficial for Holstein cattle and in herds where multiparous and primiparous animals are housed together. Higher stocking density (100%) can be used in Jersey cattle herds without negative effects on health and performance post-partum.

Authors: Joe Armstrong, Extension educator; Luciano Caixeta, College of Veterinary Medicine; Bobwealth Omontese, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences