So how do we guarantee a successful transition through calving to milking? Producers need to plan and manage for success, even before a cow reaches the dry pen from her previous lactation.
Transition cows need to be in good body condition, as well as have access to properly balanced rations and adequate housing and cooling. After providing these basics, producers, fresh cow managers and employees must work together throughout the transition period to identify at-risk cows for closer examination.
First 10 days are key
The first 10 days after calving are a critical time for fresh cows. During this time, they are still recovering from calving and are losing body condition because their feed intake cannot yet meet the energy demands of lactation.
Disease susceptibility is high in this group, especially cows who experience a challenge during calving. These cows are at higher risk of metabolic and post-calving diseases such as milk fever, ketosis and metritis. There are four major risk factors that could lead to fresh cow disorders:
• Dystocia (any assisted or difficult calving)
• Retained placenta
Cows that experience any of these challenges should be monitored more closely as part of a greater fresh cow management program.
Fresh cow workers should assess several aspects of cow performance to identify and treat diseases early. I recommend that workers spend at least 20 seconds daily examining each fresh cow while spending more time with at-risk cows.
This visual check-up is best completed by two people, one at the front of the cow and the other at the rear. There are a few red flags employees should look for during examination.
From the front:
• Appetite – Is the cow eating?
• Attitude – Does she have droopy ears? Sunken eyes? Dry nostrils?
• Smell – Does her breath have a ketone odor?
From the rear:
• Respiration rate – Is the cow breathing normally?
• Uterine discharge – Is the discharge foul-smelling or watery?
• Udder fill – Did the milkers mark her in the parlor for being off milk?
• Lameness – How do her feet look? Is lameness a concern?
Daily temperature monitoring can be an effective part of this program, especially for new employees who lack cow experience, as temping offers an objective measurement. However, don’t rely solely on temperature and ignore visual observation. Not every sick cow will show fever and not every fever necessarily indicates illness.
On the tenth or “graduation day,” I advise workers to check uterine discharge a final time and monitor uterine size. Cows with a pussy, white discharge and a healthy uterus have an active immune system and can be moved into the high-production group.
The key aspect of a post-fresh monitoring program is to utilize as much information as possible to make an educated decision on disease diagnosis. Look at milk weights, temperatures, discharge and cowside assessments to determine if a cow may be struggling with a transition challenge.
Don’t overthink it!
Communication among the people who handle transition management – from the dry-off pen through calving and to the breeding pen – must all work together to identify at-risk animals and communicate amongst the dairy’s team. It’s critical to implement a system that can easily be understood by everyone involved, regardless of language, education level and experience.
One of the easiest, and most cost-effective, tools for communication is a chalk stick. Marking the cow with its transition history offers employees easy-to-understand information at their fingertips. Here are the basics:
1. At calving, mark the calving date on the cow’s hip.
2. Circle or underline the calving date of any cow that experiences a calving challenge. A different colored chalk can also be used.
3. Retouch chalk markings every two or three days so they will remain visible for at least the first 10 days in lactation.
4. Communicate the system throughout the employee team. Everyone must know what the marking system means.
RFID technology can work well, as long as people who need the information can access and understand it. One of the biggest disappointments I’ve seen on many dairies is professional, well-written protocols collecting dust in the dairy office. Make sure those working with fresh cows on a daily basis have the tools and information they need.
Implementing the system
Beyond developing practical and actionable fresh cow protocols, it is equally important to ensure the fresh cow protocols fit the dairy’s cow flow and employee training levels. Producers should take time to not only explain the protocols, but also the rationale behind them. Fresh cow workers should understand the ramifications of their work and the impact later in the breeding pen. A committed crew will respect the protocols and carry them out more enthusiastically. Taking time to build this relationship can pay off in a more committed workforce. Be careful to prevent procedural drift. It is recommended to switch workers around to different tasks when possible to keep them fresh and alert.
Fresh cow management is the motor that drives the dairy operation’s profit engine, and communication is the backbone of that system. Investing time and energy to develop protocols that everyone at the dairy commits to will pay off in greater chances for success and a more profitable bottom line. EL