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Exact costs of transition diseases require complete records

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairy Published on 18 October 2019

Knowing what is really going on with the health of your transition cows is not just important – “It is critical to overall profitability and production. The financial impact of transition cow disease is greater than we realize,” said Dr. Mike Overton.

About half of all cows experience one or more of the common transition cow issues, including metritis, mastitis, retained placenta, hypocalcemia and displaced abomasum. He said if a producer isn’t seeing similar numbers, it doesn’t necessarily imply that the operation is doing a better job but, rather, it is possible the operation is failing to observe and record all disease occurrence. “Accurately recording disease occurrence, even if it is not treated, is critical for understanding the impact of disease on a herd and for improving management,” Overton said.



Many dairies lack adequate observation of transition cows, others observe but fail to document, and many only record the most severe cases that are treated with antimicrobials. Overton said having information on all cases, no matter how severe or if treatment was used, is crucial.

“The cost of both clinical and subclinical disease is often higher than we might imagine. With incomplete disease records, the apparent impact is less than the true impact,” Overton said. “Consequently, there is a huge opportunity for most dairies to improve performance and profitability. Improvements in disease detection, recording and interpretation of records can help accelerate our progress.”

Estimating the costs of transition cow disease is not an easy task. Direct costs include diagnostics, treatments, therapeutics (supportives used in addition to treatment such as anti-inflammatories), discarded milk, vet service, labor and death loss.

Estimating indirect costs (lost opportunity) can be even trickier. Questions that need to be asked include:

  • How much milk is not produced throughout lactation as a result of disease, and what is that worth?

  • How many cows leave the herd prematurely as a consequence of this issue, and what is the economic impact on the dairy?

  • How much is reproductive performance negatively impacted by this issue, and what does that cost?

Although calculating the exact costs of profits lost to disease is possible, it is also very complicated. Overton said it is possible when working with a trusted adviser, but accurate, complete records are required.


He said knowing the exact cost is less important than knowing the true incidence and impact with key economic outcomes like production, reproduction and culling. “Cost is simply a strong motivation to improve management and serves to highlight key opportunities,” he said.

The first step, he said, is for ownership and management to work together with their veterinarian and nutritionist to design the appropriate set of disease definitions, treatment protocols, detection approaches, recording approaches and feedback strategy in order to get the correct, accurate information.

“On most farms, there is a failure in the whole disease recognition and recording process. Possible reasons include inconsistency in definitions, diagnostic efforts or approaches, inconsistent recording and, finally, inconsistent use of data if it is actually collected,” Overton said. Most of the issues start with a failure to set the correct expectations from management/ownership, a failure to establish appropriate management and treatment protocols for all levels of disease, and failure to provide feedback.

“Scolding a worker for treating more cows with metritis is not the way to get better records,” he said. Employees’ attempts to improve disease records start innocuously enough, but once a worker doubles or triples their antibiotic use and is yelled at because of the higher costs, the system reverts to the old approach. “Instead, the team should decide on the best set of definitions for the disease in question, determine which diseased cows should be treated and in what way, and which cows should not be treated despite having the disease recorded in their records,” he said.

Overton shared the example of a dairy that is interested in doing a better job with metritis. On most farms, the only metritis cases being recorded are the ones severe enough to be treated. Even if a cow has a milder form of metritis and does not receive medication, he said it still needs to be recorded. “These cows still have a negative impact of the disease on milk production and reproduction, but it is difficult or impossible to determine its impact in a herd since they are not recorded,” he said.

Moving forward, perhaps the dairy (working with a veterinarian and nutritionist) defines these milder cases in a particular way, decides that “no treatment” is the correct protocol but records them as “mild metritis.” They will still record the more severely affected cows as “severe metritis” and document their treatments. Now the workers are not treating cows they shouldn’t and cases are being recorded. Moving forward, consultants can more accurately measure the impact of the “mild metritis” versus “severe metritis” versus all others, determine if preventive strategies are working or not and decide if treatment protocols need to be modified.


Simply standardizing the definition of transition cow disease, establishing protocols and deciding how to record the data in the software can make a big difference in establishing the true costs of transition diseases.

Knowing the overall true incidences of disease in your herd over time can be a game-changer, he said. “Yes, one can measure milk production changes over time, but how much of the change observed is due to a decrease in disease, improvements in forages/nutrition, improved weather conditions or simply a better mix of cows? You can monitor culling, but culling is driven more by heifer availability and economic forces than disease per se,” he said.

Herd performance should be closely monitored, including early lactation performance and disease incidence. Producers should pay attention to upcoming fluctuations in the number of projected calvings and the resulting impact on stocking density, as this can contribute to a higher risk of disease and premature culling.

Overton said removing stressors for transition cows may improve their health and performance. Stressors include mixing of first-lactation and older cows, overcrowding, unnecessary pen moves, excessive standing times and excessive walking distance. Consider how far cows must walk to and from the parlor and how many times per day this occurs. Try to limit the time away from the housing pen to less than three hours per day in total.

Other steps Overton recommended to help keep transition cows healthy include:

  • Use high-quality feed ingredients (properly balanced with sufficient fiber) to promote feed intake.

  • Manage environment to minimize stress and weight loss during fresh period.

  • Optimize the number of days in the close-up pen to improve early production and reduce the risk of metabolic diseases such as ketosis and DAs.

  • Consider specific feed additives and pharmacologic interventions.

  • Promptly identify and appropriately treat fresh cow disorders.  end mark

Overton is a DVM and MPVM (Master of Preventive Veterinary Medicine) with Elanco Animal Health. He presented this information at the Four-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference held annually in Dubuque, Iowa.

Kelli Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa.

Ways to monitor transition cows

  • NEFAs or BHBAs (Non-esterified fatty acids or blood beta-hydroxybutyrate acid)

  • Urine pH

  • Calcium levels after calving

  • Daily milk (start-up milk)

  • Early lactation milk (first test milk)

  • Peak milk

  • p305ME milk

  • SCC

  • First test fat or fat-to-protein

  • Feed intake

  • Rectal temperature

  • Ruminations

  • Resting time