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How nutrition can affect prepartum and postpartum cows

Steve Maske Published on 03 February 2011

I have had the advantage of working as a practicing veterinarian in the Midwest and as a nutritionist in California, Utah, Idaho and Texas. When comparing the managerial and nutritional styles of these different areas, it is easy to see many similarities and some differences.

The same post-calving problems are present in all these different areas. That is, you can expect to see ketosis, metritis, milk fever, displaced abomasums, retained placenta and mastitis.



The incidence and the quickness of treatment of these conditions will be different in the traditionally smaller Midwest herds as compared to the mostly larger West Coast herds.

Cow health is much easier to monitor in a smaller dairy barn setting than a large drylot or freestall system. That is, if the dairyman is working around a stanchion or tiestall confined cow, it is much easier to observe problems in an individual cow than it is in a 200-cow pen.

If the cow is not eating, showing an abnormal uterine discharge or smells of ketosis, it is obviously much easier to diagnose these abnormal conditions. An earlier diagnosis will, of course, lead to a faster treatment and probably a quicker recovery.

Size of the herd is also an important consideration when looking at the accuracy of TMR mixing for prepartum cows. It is much more difficult to accurately mix a TMR for a dozen prepartum cows than it is to mix for 100 cows in the close-up pen.

In a smaller herd, having the physical facilities for a close-up pen may also be a luxury. This may make it difficult to separate and feed differently the close-up dry cows and the far-off dry cows. If the close-up cow can’t be accurately fed fiber, protein or milk fever preventatives, then more problems will occur after calving as compared to one that is accurately fed.


These are some of the differences that one will see in working with Midwest herds as compared to West Coast herds.

The similarities are more extensive. As stated earlier, the diseases and metabolic conditions one sees in transition cows is the same throughout the nation. Ketosis, metritis, milk fever, mastitis, retained placenta and displaced abomasums are common from the East Coast to the West Coast. Size of the herd or location has little effect on the origin of the conditions affecting transition cows.

Nutrition, whether it is East Coast, Midwest or West Coast, may be the largest factor in determining if your post-calving problems are large or small. Simply, proper pre-calving and post-calving nutrition will avoid many of the common problems that occur in most, if not all, dairy herds.

Essentially, most of the health problems happening in postpartum cows can be related entirely, or at least in great part, to nutritional or managerial decisions made by the producer in the three weeks prior to calving and in the three weeks after calving.

It may be difficult to differentiate between what is a nutritional cause of post-calving problems and what is a managerial reason for the same set of problems. This is because some of the causes of many problems will be classified as both a managerial and a nutrition problem.

For example, is low dry matter intake a nutritional or managerial problem? The low intake may have many causes, some of which are nutritional and some of which are managerial.


Low dry matter intake in the prepartum cow may happen for many reasons. Low dry matter intake may result from overcrowding the close-up cow pen. Using 80 percent capacity of the headlocks is the most common number quoted for stocking density.

Also, combining springing heifers with older cows has the potential to cause a lower dry matter intake in springing heifers due to dominance of older cows.

Some work from Penn State has shown that too long of a fiber length in the TMR will contribute to reduced intakes. Obviously, lack of an adequate water source will add to decreased dry matter intake.

Recent research has shown a lower dry matter intake and mobilization of body fat before calving will result in many common problems after calving. Dr Huzzey at British Columbia has shown that metritis after calving can be predicted by lower dry matter intake before calving.

Also, LeBlanc has observed an increased incidence of displaced abomasums in post-calving animals that have higher NEFA levels before calving. Increased NEFAs are a sign of fat mobilization or lower energy intake.

The close-up cow does have more energy demands than commonly thought. This includes the growth of the developing calf, growth of the uterus to accommodate the growing fetus and the fluid that is accumulating and the rapidly developing udder.

If dry matter intake is not adequate to provide calories to accommodate this growth, fat will be mobilized to provide energy needed for growth. In the pre-fresh animal, fat will be mobilized from the body stores of fat.

This will be seen as a rise in blood levels of non-esterified fatty acids or NEFAs. NEFAs are the cow mechanism for transporting fat through the blood to the liver to be metabolized for energy.

In research by Doepel, feeding a high-energy ration to close-up cows resulted in similar DMI as those cows fed a less energetic diet. However, because of the higher energy concentration of the diet, energy intake was higher, resulting in lower NEFAs when measured before calving.

The more positive energy balance resulted in less fat being deposited in the liver and hence better liver function. There was also an increase in DMI post-calving, which is very beneficial for prevention of many conditions common to post-calving cows.

Just-fresh animals who are commonly in a negative energy balance (NEB) will also mobilize body fat for energy. Just-fresh animals will essentially always be in varying states of NEB in early lactation due to the demands for energy for milk production. The NEB is accentuated by the normally lower dry matter intake in early lactation.

The common measure for lack of available energy is the measure of fat utilization. This is done in the post-calving animal most commonly by the measurement of BHBA, but also NEFAs. BHBA is an end product of fat metabolism and is associated with the metabolic condition of ketosis.

It can be easily measured in urine. This was commonly done in the past by dipping a Ketostix tab in urine. Presently, a simple blood test will also provide this information more accurately and will end the need for a urine sample.

Therefore, NEFAs and BHBA are two measures of adequate or inadequate energy in pre-calving and post-calving animals, respectively. Evaluation of these two measures will make it apparent if energy is adequate in each group of animals.

It has also been shown that NEB in early lactation will contribute to an elevated SCC during lactation. Other research has shown the incidence of clinical mastitis will be higher in cows exhibiting ketosis.

Elevated NEFAs pre-calving and post-calving and elevated BHBA post-calving have been shown to decrease efficiency on many dairies. Cornell University has done much research in measuring how the elevation of these measures of weight loss have an effect on milk production, breeding efficiency and the increased incidence of metabolic diseases.

The Cornell research has shown that cows with elevated BHBA and NEFAs post-calving will have an increase in incidence of disease, decreased pregnancy rate and a fairly significant reduction in milk production after calving.

The lower milk production amounted to a loss of 1200 lbs of milk for older cows. This was in herds with over a 15 percent incidence of cows over the .7 mEq/l level of NEFA.

Researchers did establish levels of .3mEq/L of NEFA prepartum, .7 mEq/L of NEFAs postpartum and 12mg/dL of BHBA postpartum as danger levels. That is, the NEFA and BHBA levels at evaluation should be lower than these points.

Striving for an intake of 16-18 Mcals of energy in prepartum cows is the desired level of energy to achieve. Dietary energy concentration will have to be adjusted to achieve this level of energy intake, as dry matter intake will vary from dairy to dairy based upon the facility quality, grouping and crowding of animals and management of the dairy.

Maximizing dry matter intake is heavily promoted as the best course of action with close-up cows, but keeping energy intake at the target levels for a full 21 days is the real goal.

Diluting the ration with low-energy ingredients may have to be done if prepartum cows tend to overconsume dry matter. If the opposite is true and intakes are too low, increasing the energy in the ration by replacing low-energy ingredients may be needed to achieve the target level of energy.

In my opinion and using Dr. Drackley’s terminology at the University of Illinois of targeting a “controlled energy diet,” this will achieve that goal.

That is, the level of energy intake is not determined completely by the amount of dry matter intake, but by the amount of calories eaten by the cow each day. And the calories consumed are controlled by the energy concentration of the diet in conjunction with dry matter intake.

NEFAs and BHBA are very important in evaluating the energy status of prepartum and postpartum rations. However, another nutritional consideration is the level of Vitamin E in the close-up ration and the just-fresh ration.

It has been shown that the level of Vitamin E declines around calving. This may be related to an increased usage of Vitamin E in the cow in reaction to the problems associated with calving.

Research has shown that Vitamin E is also decreased in cows that become affected with mastitis and cows with displaced abomasum. It has also been noted that feeding Vitamin E at the 800 IU/day level will improve liver quality in fatty liver conditions.

Feeding Vitamin E to a correct level which may be at least in this 800IU/day range may prevent these conditions from happening.

There are many suggestions as to the level of Vitamin E to feed prior to calving. These range anywhere from 1000 IU to 4000 IU/day. Feeding an amount somewhere in this range would appear to be a correct level.

The increasing of BHBA or developing ketosis has been shown to cause many problems. As mentioned, it has been associated with increased health problems and production problems.

Increased SCC, decreased immune response, LDA, metritis, lower milk production and mastitis are some of the problems researchers have linked to elevation of BHBA.

Keeping close-up cows on a steady level of energy in the 17-18 Mcal/day range will give them enough energy to develop an udder, allow for uterine tissue and calf growth and allow for energy for tissue maintenance.

The dry matter intake will be steady if cows are not overcrowded, made to use an uncomfortable facility, denied access to water or mixed by parity. Adding at least 1000 IUs of Vitamin E per cow per day will help promote a good immune response. This goes along with adequate macro and trace minerals and protein.

Just-fresh cows will not have excessively high NEFAs or BHBA if these same managerial rules are followed for them. Increasing the Mcals delivered to each postpartum cow to 25-35 Mcal/day and keeping Vitamin E at the 800-900 IU of course will be needed.

In summary, using proper nutrition to maintain prepartum and postpartum cows on the correct level of energy to prevent mobilization of fat and the elevation of NEFAs and BHBA will prevent many metabolic and infectious diseases from occurring. Keeping Vitamin E at correct levels will also help in the prevention of many common problems.

All these nutritional suggestions, if used and practiced, will lower the many health problems that affect today’s dairy cow. This, along with increased production, will make the dairy more profitable which is desirable any time, but in the economic environment today, it has become mandatory. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to .

 Stephen Maske
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