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Transition your cows to higher profit

Elliot Block for Progressive Dairyman

Meeting fresh cow nutritional needs is critical to increased milk production and profitability. How cows are fed and cared for during the transition period – the three weeks before and three weeks after calving – sets the stage for milk production in the entire subsequent lactation.

If dairy managers can prevent a decrease in dry matter intake (DMI) and the onset of metabolic disorders (the issues that negatively impact cows during the transition period) the entire lactation falls into place, asserts Michael DeGroot, a dairy nutrition and management consultant near Fresno, California. Prevention of these issues translates into improved production and reproduction in the next lactation, he believes, adding real dollars to a dairy operation’s profit potential.

DeGroot believes transition feeding and management is a bottleneck on 99 percent of dairies based on his experience consulting in California, New Mexico and Texas. Progressive dairymen will devote time and energy to managing transition cows, he explains.

Dry matter intake
Producers should focus on two main areas during transition and fresh cow lifecycle phases. The first is to maintain adequate DMI during the three weeks before and after calving.

DeGroot advocates monitoring transition cows closely to determine whether the ration needs adjustment to improve DMI. He asks his DeGroot Dairy Consulting clients to check urine pH on cows in transition pens on a weekly basis, if possible. He sees this task as a priority to set cows up for successful subsequent lactations. A urine pH between 6.0 and 6.5 in Holsteins indicates the negative dietary cation anion difference (DCAD) ration is working properly. Anything approaching or above 7.0 warrants a review of the transition ration.

Cow comfort is key
The second area producers need to focus on during these lifecycle phases, according to DeGroot, involves cow comfort and behavior. Well-managed transition and fresh cows have enough space to rest and eat, and they are not unnecessarily moved from pen to pen.

DeGroot believes good managers know it is crucial to keep cows comfortable during the transition period. He shares a description from Dr. Jim Drackley of the University of Illinois: “It is like building a tower with blocks. You keep adding cow stress factors to the top of the tower – overcrowding, heat stress, not enough room at the feed bunk and too often disrupting the cow’s social structure by shifting cows in and out – and at some point the tower topples and the cow crashes.”

Have adequate bunk space for transition and fresh cows, DeGroot recommends. Ninety percent of bunk capacity should be utilized. Separate the older cows and first-calf heifers into two pens, if possible.

Balanced DCAD diets show milk increase
From what DeGroot has seen in his consulting practice, feeding a DCAD diet is as important for first-calf heifers as for multi-lactation cows. He has seen a good production response when he uses a feed-grade potassium carbonate product in the fresh-cow and lactating rations of clients.

DeGroot looked at how feeding a negative DCAD diet affected DMI before and after freshening in a research study he conducted at Oregon State University. Regardless of the source, feeding a palatable anionic salt to establish a negative DCAD always improved DMI and fresh-cow milk production over feeding a positive DCAD control diet. In fact, his study showed an increase of 6 to 18 pounds of milk per cow. The key reason for feeding a palatable anionic salt source, DeGroot explains, is to get the cow to mobilize calcium by maintaining or increasing DMI.

The high potassium content in forages included in rations on Western dairies means it’s difficult to establish a low DCAD diet. Including palatable anionic salts in the diet is standard procedure on dairies DeGroot works with to help the fresh cows mobilize calcium from the bone and prevent milk fever. However, adding some anionic salts, such as magnesium sulphide and ammonium chloride, for example, can make the ration less palatable and may decrease DMI.

Cows should be closely monitored because problems in the close-up ration translate into problems in the fresh-cow ration. Urine pH changes can indicate decreased DMI, setting the cow up for metabolic disorders. When a herdsman in charge of close-up cows on the dairy finds a problem with fresh-cow intake, DeGroot wants to know about it immediately, so he can adjust rations or seek out other management changes to improve DMI.

Table 1Prevention means profit
Carefully managing your herd’s close-up nutrition can provide extra profit. A negative DCAD transition diet will help avoid metabolic disorders such as milk fever, retained placenta and displaced abomasum, DeGroot explains. Preventing these health problems rather than treating the cow after health issues occur saves money and translates into higher production.

Each milk fever case costs producers $186 in profit, for example. If cows get milk fever at an average incidence rate of 7 percent, that’s a loss of $13 per cow per year for every 100 cows. Studies show that feeding a transition-specific rumen fermentation enhancer for 21 days prior to calving reduced milk fevers from the average 7 percent to just 2 percent, saving $9.30 per cow on every 100 cows. The same research showed a transition-specific rumen fermentation enhancer helped cut the typical 15 percent retained placenta rate nearly in half – a substantial savings, given that each retained placenta costs an average of $217 or $32.55 per cow for every 100 cows (see Table 1).

Besides reducing disease incidence, three independent research studies also showed increased production of 1,872, 3,000 and 3,200 lbs. milk per cow per lactation when a transition-specific rumen fermentation enhancer was fed 21 days prior to calving. Based on just 1,872 lbs. at $12 per cwt, that yields an additional $224 profit per cow per lactation.

Fresh phase critical
The three-week fresh phase of the cow’s lifecycle is a critical period during which cows have the chance to advance into a profitable lactation as quickly as possible. The ideal fresh phase prepares cows for successful rebreeding, while boosting dry matter intake (DMI) to reach optimal milk production.

A rumen fermentation enhancer fed during the fresh phase and beyond helps cows prepare to hit peak milk production, allowing rumen microbes to become more efficient and grow in numbers. This stabilizes the rumen to help improve DMI, feed conversion and nitrogen utilization.

In a university study, cows fed a rumen fermentation enhancer during the first 100 days of lactation had a 3.4 pound increase in milk production. At $12 per cwt. for milk, gross profit is an additional $40.80 per cow. Subtracting a $24 product cost would equal $16.80 net profit per cow.

At the same time, including a stable feed-grade potassium carbonate in fresh and lactating rations helps cows maintain blood buffering capacity to enhance DMI and milk components, along with overall productivity. Feed-grade potassium carbonate helps keep cows’ DCAD levels in the positive range resulting in higher production peaks. DeGroot has seen a good production response when he uses a feed grade potassium carbonate product in the fresh-cow and lactating rations of clients.

In three independent studies, the average milk yield response to DCAD-balanced diets was 3.2 pounds additional milk per cow per day for the first 100 days of lactation. At $12 per cwt., that equates to additional revenue of $38.40. Subtracting the $11.25 cost of the feed-grade potassium carbonate means an additional $27.15 profit per cow.

After calving, cows are expected to reach high production levels as fast as possible. Feeding a negative DCAD transition diet before cows freshen, in addition to other transition management factors, will help cows get off to a successful and disease-free lactation. PD

References omitted but are available upon request.

Mike DeGrootMike DeGroot

To contact Mike,
e-mail him at

Elliot BlockElliot Block
Animal Nutrition

To contact Dr. Block,
e-mail him at

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