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Help your transition cows find the right balance

Dane Grossnickle for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2016
transition cows

Name some of the biggest health problems within a dairy herd. You’re likely saying ketosis, displaced abomasums and milk fever.

Now, think of what all of these problems have in common. The answer is dry cows.

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One of the most discussed topics within the dairy industry is how farmers can improve their transition cow management to avoid these health issues. Dairy farmers have tried close-up, 10-day and drenching programs.

Shorter dry cow periods and even eliminating the dry cow period have been explored. However, farmers still believe, when looking at transition cow issues, that a herd incidence rate of 4 to 6 percent is doing well.

Dr. Gordie Jones, DVM, has decreased that number in his own herd to less than 1 percent and challenged other dairy farmers to do the same. An accomplished veterinarian, nutritionist and dairy farmer of 3,500 Jerseys in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, Jones spoke at the Maryland Dairy Convention in February 2016.

He bluntly stated, “If our cows have a problem on our dairies, that problem has a first and last name, and it is ‘place your name here.’” Jones explained that the single-most important phase of production is a phase many dairy farmers have failed to manage: the transition period.

This failure of transition cows can be attributed to the following, according to Jones:

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  • Losing too much or gaining too little weight in the dry cow pen

  • Receiving too much or too little energy in the dry cow ration

  • Being fed too much grain

  • Suffering from too much overcrowding or too little cow comfort

  • Receiving too little selenium, fiber, protein or magnesium

  • Receiving too much potassium

  • Having too much mold and mycotoxins in the feed

  • Having an inadequate dry matter intake

  • Spending too much or too little time in the dry pen (the ideal dry cow period is 55-60 days)

  • Carrying twins and triplets instead of a single calf

The majority of these problems can be filtered into two different categories: diet and housing.

To combat the problem of the transition cow’s diet, Jones offered his solution for a low-energy, high-fiber dry cow diet: the Goldilocks Diet. Jones suggests diets should contain no more than:

  • 8 pounds of corn silage dry matter

  • 4 to 6 pounds of dry, high-quality, low-energy straw, chopped short

  • No added starch

“The diets should contain 26 to 30 pounds of dry matter intake and 1,200 grams of metabolizable protein to assist in colostrum production. Net energy lactation levels should be between 0.58 and 0.62 Mcal per pound, and forage neutral detergent fiber levels should range from 40 to 44 percent.

The neutral detergent fiber forage intake should be 12 to 13 pounds, which is the same as milking cow ration. Magnesium should be 0.4 percent, and the magnesium-to-potassium ratio should be in the 1-to-4 ratio range to avoid grass tetany,” Jones said.

While the diet may sound like a magic bullet, there may be areas that need troubleshooting when it is first incorporated. Farmers must ensure sorting is minimized while feeding bulky forages and must watch for mold and mycotoxins in the forage.

Also, providing adequate amounts of high-quality water, along with potentially lowering the energy content, may be adjustments that need to be made for success to be realized.

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Jones stated that when followed continuously, this diet has resulted in less than 1 percent of metabolic disorders in the herd.

A cow’s diet is a critical factor, but farmers must consider external factors as well. According to Jones, following a few simple guidelines can improve living quality for transition cows.

First, providing adequate bunk space of 30 inches per animal allows cows to have access to their strict dietary needs during their transition period while still maximizing bunk space utilization. Second, keep cows in their ideal thermoneutral zone.

While it is not overly efficient to install an HVAC system in a freestall barn to cool a cow’s body temperature to her ideal 40ºF, the less heat stress a cow experiences, the less likely she will be to have any of the aforementioned health issues post-freshening.

Last, transition cows should be allowed a dry period of at least six weeks. If cows are given less than six weeks, their bodies will not have enough time to prepare for calving; however, more than 12 weeks might allow the bovine to develop excess fat, leading to metabolic diseases.

“Circling back, the transition cow failure [has traditionally been considered] as a ‘downstream’ problem,” Jones said. “Dairy farmers are trying to fix the problem after the problem has been caused.”

In a successful transition cow program, confronting the problems before they occur is key. The nutrition and comfort rules Jones recommended allow farmers to be proactive. Feeding a low-energy, high-fiber diet (Goldilocks) keeps cows at a healthy calving weight.

Jones believes proper diet, along with adequate feeding space, cooling and the proper length of dry-off periods, will ultimately help the industry achieve a less than 1 percent incidence of dry cow health issues and create a new, healthier, normal for dairies across the country.  PD

Dane Grossnickle is a student at the University of Maryland. Email Eane Grossnickle

PHOTO: The transition cow failure [has traditionally been considered] as a ‘downstream’ problem. Dairy farmers are trying to fix the problem after the problem has been caused. Staff photo.

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