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Benefits of controlled diets for dairy cows

Kelli Kaderly-Boylen Published on 16 August 2013


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Freelance writer Kelli Boylen combined key points from two presentations at the 2013 Four State Dairy Nutrition Conference. Dr. Phil Cardoso said that cows fed a controlled-energy diet as opposed to a high-energy diet three to four weeks before calving tend to have fewer health problems, similar milk production and better reproduction. Kevin Lager’s presentation focused on using the metabolic profile to diagnose and treat transition cow problems.

We asked Dr. Phil Cardoso:
Q. What new research are you working on or aware of regarding the economic benefits of controlled-energy diets?

Will controlled-energy diets fed to cows before calving increase efficiency and therefore profitability in my farm? At this moment, all the results from our research and experience on the field had shown that yes, the controlled-energy diet seems to increase profitability in the dairy farm. We are in the stage of finishing up two manuscripts on the topic. The first one reporting the effects of controlled-energy diet on health, milk yield and milk composition of dairy cows.

The second one discusses the most important items to be measured (i.e., in blood, in milk, etc.) during the transition period that are mostly associated with cows not being efficient. Additionally, we just concluded a trial indicating that cows fed the controlled-energy diet before calving experienced less insulin resistance (similar to diabetes type 2 in humans) when compared to cows fed a diet with higher energy during the same period. With all the numbers generated from our research, we feel comfortable now in pursuing a study that will put a dollar value on the benefits of controlled-energy diet fed to cows before calving.
—Dr. Phil Cardoso, dairy research and extension, University of Illinois

We asked Kevin Lager:
Q. What other tools besides the metabolic profile would you recommend to producers diagnosing transition cow problems?


While there is no substitute for good management, challenges are bound to arise. Supplemental tools for diagnosing issues during the transition period can include herd records, consultants and visual observation. Accurate records provide the basis for monitoring transition program success and can be utilized to proactively identify animals with predispositions for disease.

Consultants such as veterinarians and nutritionists have expertise in their respective areas and are important to the management team. Visual observations including rectal temperatures and body condition scoring are additional components of an assessment. Additionally, research is being conducted on the use of acute phase proteins as a method to predict post-calving disease. While not yet commercially available, initial results show potential for an additional test for the diagnostic tool box to get ahead of illness in the transition period, and addressing illness in the early phases is beneficial for both the animal and producer.
—Kevin Lager, extension dairy specialist, Iowa State University


Cows fed a controlled-energy diet versus a high-energy diet in the three to four weeks before calving tend to have fewer health problems, similar milk production and better reproduction, said Dr. Phil Cardoso of the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois.

He explained this during his presentation, “3-R Transition Period: Recovery, Reproduction and Results” at the Four State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference held June 12-13 in Dubuque, Iowa.

Cows fed a controlled-energy diet in the three to four weeks before calving (often referred to as the “close-up” period) yielded the same amount of milk as cows that received high-energy diets.


Just as important: “Cows fed a controlled energy diet during the dry period had fewer chances for developing displacement of the abomasum or clinical ketosis,” Cardoso said.

Many dairy producers and nutritionists follow the 2001 National Research Council (NRC) recommendations for feeding dairy cows. Those recommendations include “feeding diets containing relatively high — 36 percent to 44 percent — concentrations of non-fiber carbohydrates to promote dry matter intake” during the weeks before calving.

This in an attempt to increase dietary energy intake and thus decrease the cow’s reliance on non-esterified fatty acids prevenient from what she has stored in her body.

Cardoso pointed out, however, that studies show cows fed a 40 percent or higher concentration of starch-based non-fiber carbohydrates often have a greater decrease in dry matter intake immediately before calving, which could lead to detrimental health and performance.

Cows fed high-energy diets during the far-off period (three to four weeks before the “close-up” period), he said, lost more bodyweight in the first six weeks post-partum, which may be related to higher milk urea nitrogen concentrations in the third week for those cows.

Although milk production was the same regardless of the freshening cow’s diet, those fed a high-energy diet during the close-up period had higher milk fat in weeks two (4.3 percent vs. 4.0 percent), three (3.9 percent vs. 3.5 percent) and four (3.6 percent vs. 3.4 percent), and higher milk protein concentration in weeks three (2.9 percent vs. 2.8 percent) and four (2.85 percent vs. 2.78 percent) postpartum.

Cows receiving energy-limited diets had lower levels of triglyceride concentrations at two weeks after calving, which led to fewer days to pregnancy.

“High energy cows (being fed high energy diets) average 10 days longer to conception,” he said, noting studies show that each day a cow is open 90 days after calving can cost at least $1.50 per day.

Other contributing factors of the improved reproductive performance include lower body condition score loss in the first six weeks postpartum and slightly greater glucose concentrations at week three.

“Controlling energy in the diet with high fiber rations seems to improve fertility,” he said. “Controlled-energy diets are considerably less expensive than high-energy diets. However, further research is needed to access the total economic benefits of controlled energy diets — the diet that feeds the cow ‘not too much, not less, but just the right amount.’”

Kevin Lager, a dairy specialist with Iowa State Extension and Outreach, said 75 percent of all cow illnesses occur during the transition period.

“It is necessary to utilize all tools available for proper diagnosis or treatment of illnesses in transition periods,” he said during his presentation on “The Metabolic Profile of Transition Dairy Cows,” noting that illness during this time will affect the milk production for the entire lactation.

Lager defined the transition period as three weeks pre-partum to three weeks post-partum. The Compton Metabolic Profile was the origin of the metabolic profile (MP) used today.

“Don’t use it as the sole tool in your toolbox,” he said, “but it is a good one to have in there.”

The MP can help diagnose metabolic problems and production diseases by monitoring non-esterified fatty acid, betahydroxy butyric acid, glucose, urea, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, sodium and albumin, to name a few.

The MP can typically be tailored, depending on the laboratory analyzing the samples for each dairy management system, by selecting what components are included.

Lager said proper sampling, analyzing the data over time, and interpreting the results are all “imperative” to effectively using the MP.

“The results should be discussed within the management team consisting of the dairy producer, nutritionist and veterinarian to ensure that, should adjustments in nutrition and/or management need to occur, the proper steps are taken,” he said.

When evaluating data, Lager said there are variations over time for the different breeds of cow, seasons of the year, number of lactations, etc. The levels of magnesium and phosphorous can even vary by the location on the cow it is taken from.

He recommends always taking samples from the same location, either from the arterial or venous systems. Samples should be taken at the same time of the day to avoid that variable.

“It is that old adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” Lager said, “The lab results will only be as good as the sample received.”

Geographical differences can also affect the outcome, he said, so determining what lab to use can help insure accurate results. Blood samples should be placed on ice right away so heat won’t affect the results.

The cost of analyzing samples varies based on the laboratory and what components are included in the analysis, Lager said. In the case of non-esterified fatty acid and betahydroxy butyric acid, there is an opportunity to use these components of the MP to predict if there’ll be illness after calving and performance within the lactation following calving.

These components can be used as regular points of focus to assess transition cow management.

“Any opportunity to improve management and ultimately cow health reduces treatment costs, both of which can be more costly in the long term and so justifies the investment in analysis,” he said. PD

Kelli Kaderly-Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.