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0409 PD: A checklist for transition cows

Carla Kuehn Published on 25 February 2009

With the new year, we tend to strive for positive change and set goals to help us achieve this change. This idea can be applied to a transition cow program.

The three weeks pre- and post-calving are a crucial time: any problems that occur can have a negative impact on the rest of the lactation.



Producers, nutritionists and veterinarians who work on a dairy farm all have a different perspective and each bring their expertise to the operation. It’s important that we collaborate to build a checklist of items that we can work with to monitor, maximize, minimize and measure.

Monitor nutrition

Several factors of the diet need to be monitored and evaluated during the transition period. Every feeding situation varies with the availability of various feedstuffs and the grouping situation on the farm. With a close-up group, we tend to increase the dietary energy of the ration to 0.70 to 0.73 Megacalorie (Mcal) per pound in order to minimize body condition loss during the time of low feed intake. Energy is also added by utilizing more grain and increasing the non-carbohydrate level to 35 to 40 percent – this stimulates the rumen development and the microbial population. It is recommended that dietary NDF be fed at 30 to 32 percent of dry matter. This can be on the lower limits if long-stem fiber is in the diet. In addition, providing a balanced supply of protein is necessary to stimulate microbial growth and to provide necessary amino acids to the small intestine.

Another way of feeding this group is to feed a moderate energy diet. Cows that are overfed during the dry period slow down their metabolic processes associated with fat utilization and glucose production. Therefore, feeding a diet in the range of 0.58 to 0.63 Mcal per pound – with a high level of processed straw to meet rumen fill – allows the animal to achieve but not exceed its energy requirement.

Feeding fat as an energy source is usually not necessary, but current research suggests that feeding for individual fatty acids may be warranted for reproduction or milk fat synthesis.


Minerals and vitamins need to be kept in check. It is advisable to keep potassium to less than 1.5 percent of the diet dry matter. Feeding selenium in both an organic and inorganic form at 0.3 parts per million and vitamin E in the range of 1,500 to 4,000 IU per day is recommended for immunity and reproductive health.

There are numerous choices of feed additives that can be included for different purposes. Niacin, propionate, choline or ionophores are utilized for prevention of fatty liver or ketosis. Diets containing anionic salts may be necessary in situations where forages are not low in potassium. Direct-fed microbials may also be warranted to aid in digestion.

Maximize intake

Transition cows need access to their feed at all times. Bunks should not be empty for this group and a 5 to 10 percent feed refusal rate is recommended. Feed needs to be fresh and pushed up on a regular basis. Utilizing palatable feeds and good quality forages is important as these will maximize intake. Forages used for these animals must be free from yeasts, molds and mycotoxins.

Cows should have 24 to 30 inches of linear feet of bunk space for unlimited access to their feed. Access to clean water is important and they should have water space of at least 3 inches per cow.

Diets should also be continually monitored. They should be properly mixed and provide adequate particle size to promote chewing. Diets should also be monitored for potential sorting.


Minimize stress

Animals need an environment that minimizes their stress. A stressful environment can increase cortisol levels which can impair immune function.

Pens or freestalls must be clean and dry. Stalls should be sized appropriately so cows avoid injury as they get up and down. Bedded packs should provide 100 to 300 square feet per animal.

Overcrowding of transition cows causes stress to the animals, limits access to feed or causes competition at the feedbunk. Alleys and walkways must provide good footing to avoid injuries and allow animals to get up and move to their feed and water.

Measure factors

Prior to calving, we must continually measure feed intakes and animal health. In addition, cattle that are fed diets of anionic salts need to be monitored for acidic urine pH. The pH level should be less than 6.0 in Holsteins and less than 5.5 in Jerseys.

Blood nonesterified fatty acids (NEFA) increase when the animal mobilizes body fat. NEFA tests can be done on cattle, but the test needs to be done through a laboratory. NEFA levels in the blood increase sharply from two to three days before calving and peak at 800 to 1,200 uM/l on the day of calving. Post-calving, these values should rapidly decrease back to their normal concentration of 200 uM/l. If more than 10 percent of the animals have elevated NEFA levels, we need to evaluate the diets or environmental conditions of these animals.

Post-calving requires optimal feed intakes. Daily body temperatures should be monitored and should not exceed 103.5°F. Continuous evaluation of the animals’ attitude and appearance can indicate metabolic problems. Cows should have two rumen contractions per minute, which can be monitored using a stethoscope.

Cowside screening tests are available to test for the presence of ketone bodies – namely beta-hydroxy butyrate (BHBA) – in the blood. Animals in ketotic states will have BHBA levels of 1.0 to 1.4 mmol/l. If BHBA levels stay elevated over 1.4 mmol/l for 15 to 50 days in milk, we need to examine the transition cow program and dry matter intakes post-fresh.

Because every farm and transition cow program is different, these items are just some things we can monitor. It is important to develop a strategy that benefits both the health of the animals and the profitability of the dairy. PD

Carla Kuehn, Ph.D., is on staff as a nutritionist at the Form-A-Feed Inc. and TechMix Inc. companies located in Stewart, Minnesota. For more information, call (800) 422-3649 or send an e-mail to

Carla Kuehn

Nutritionist Form-A-Feed Inc. and TechMix Inc.