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How to preserve fresh cow health

Mike Bettle Published on 06 April 2011

Keeping your fresh cows healthy is critical for both a profitable lactation and for timely rebreeding. To achieve this, some forward planning and proactive interventions will be required and should start as early as during the last third of a cow’s previous lactation.

This is when the pregnant cow’s body score needs to be assessed and action taken accordingly. On a scale of 1 (extremely thin) to 5 (extremely fat), your aim is to dry her off at an ideal body score of around 3.5.

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It is easier and safer to manipulate a cow’s body condition while she is still milking. Trying to achieve this while in the dry period is too problematic. Losing condition during this time will lead to health problems for both the cow and calf.

Gaining weight in small increments of up to one pound of gain a day is acceptable, but weight gains in the cow at this stage will also lead to weight gain in her calf. This could lead to dystocia (a hard calving) and all of its related problems.

The importance of dry matter intake
The most critical factor that drives fresh cow health is dry matter intake (DMI) in the days prior to and immediately after calving.

Making sure your fresh cow or heifer isn’t overconditioned is a major factor in producing an animal that is going to thrive during the transition into her lactation. There is nothing less ambitious than a fat cow after she calves, except maybe a fat heifer.

Providing the cow with carefully balanced nutrition throughout the dry period is essential in achieving the goal of keeping her healthy and “on feed.” Initially, at dryoff, she needs to be given a high-forage, low-starch diet, best achieved by feeding grass hay or straw as the major forage source.

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These forages provide excellent fiber sources for R and R (rumen recovery) after coming off the lactation diet and, in general, are low in potassium, which is as big an enemy to the dry cow as overconditioning.

Aim for a DMI of 1.8 percent to 2.2 percent of the cow’s bodyweight at this stage in the dry period, with a 14 percent protein and .65 to .68 Mcals per lb and an NDF of 37 percent to 40 percent. As pregnancy advances toward calving, DMI will naturally decrease to around 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent of bodyweight.

At this point, make the ration more concentrated to provide her with the nutrients she needs in a smaller package. This also serves to transition the rumen bacteria toward the lactation ration by adapting them to a higher corn silage, grain and protein concentrate diet. The rumen papillae will develop, maximizing the rumen’s absorptive surface prior to freshening.

The ration, at this stage, should be in the low 20s for starch percentage of DM, protein at 16 percent to provide 1.7 to 1.8 pounds of total protein, an NEl of around 0.70 to 0.73 Mcals per lb and an NDF between 30 percent and 33 percent of DM.

It is important to keep total potassium levels low, particularly in the close-up ration – less than 1.5 percent of DM. I also favor a lower calcium level, if possible. Excess potassium in the dry cow ration, with its alkaline properties, will severely reduce the free flow of labile calcium from the bone and it directly reduces the absorption of magnesium from the ration.

Calcium and magnesium are critical for good muscle tone. When a cow freshens, there is a huge draw on the body reserves of these two elements. If they are not readily available, the deficiency will, at best, slow and weaken muscle contractions and, at worst, precipitate a full-blown case of milk fever.

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Maintaining energy levels
The fresh cow is always going to be energy-deficient for the first part of her lactation as she rapidly increases milk production and only slowly increases her DMI. Anything that reduces her appetite will exacerbate the problem.

To overcome this deficit, she will mobilize her reserves of body fat. This is normal for the fresh cow. But if the energy deficit is too large, or the cow was too fat coming into the dry period, she could be mobilizing fat quicker than the liver can process it, which can result in fatty liver syndrome.

Vitamins, minerals, additives
High levels of vitamin E and selenium in the dry and fresh cow diets are very important during transition. They support immune function in both the cow and calf, reducing incidents of mastitis and retained placenta in the fresh cow.

To increase effectiveness of selenium (which can only be fed at a maximum of 0.3 ppm), more available, organic sources can replace some of the inorganic salt. Vitamin E recommendations vary but should be a minimum of 1500 i.u. up to 4000 i.u. per day.

There are other additives that have merit in the transition ration. Rumen-protected choline and other protected B-vitamins, such as niacin, aid in fat metabolism and can help protect against ketosis and fatty liver, as can ionophores like sodium monensin.

If no low-potassium forages are available for the close-up dry cows, “anionic” or acidic additives are available to overcome the alkalinity of potassium and help to keep calcium free flowing from the bone to the bloodstream.

If you have to add an anionic product, make sure you raise the calcium level of the close-up diet to 1.5 percent. Yeast cultures help to maintain appetites in fresh cows by helping moderate rumen pH.

Keeping cool and hydrated
To maintain good DMIs, it is essential that the fresh cow is properly hydrated. Drinking space is very important in the fresh cow pen and you should allow at least three inches of trough space per cow, providing a clean and palatable water supply.

There are some excellent proprietary products that provide electrolytes, vitamins and microbials that help stimulate appetites. At the end of the day, something like this might be just what is needed to push your cows away from the precipice.

During transition, cows and heifers should, ideally, be housed separately. If this is not possible, try to have both feed and water available on different sides of the pen so heifers can get away from “boss cows.”

Heat abatement measures in the summer are essential to keep the transition cow on feed. Install fans over the feed and resting area and sprinklers over the feed area. Provide electrolytes for the fresh cows either in-feed or in solution in the water.

Physical environment
Space at the feedbunk should be around 24 to 30 inches per cow to minimize competition. Top-quality feed should be available at all times and pushed up regularly. If feeding a TMR, you should feed for a 5 percent to 10 percent refusal rate per day with the fresh cow ration.

Never stock a transition facility at more than 80 percent of capacity and, if you are using a bed pack or compost barn, allow up to 300 sq. ft. per animal. If using freestalls, make sure they are built wide enough to accommodate a large cow that can get in and out without harming itself.

Always try to minimize stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is an immune suppressor and disease is much more prevalent in stressed herds. Move dry cows and heifers from pen to pen only once a week, in batches, to reduce the stress of the move.

Monitor fresh cows and heifers daily while in the fresh pens. Simple observation of a cow’s demeanor will tell you if she is thriving or not after freshening. Body temperatures should not exceed 103.5ºF. Check for rumen motility with a stethoscope; the contractions rate should be two (2) every minute. Check for ketosis with a ketone strip.

It all adds up and pays off
All of these measures are aimed at maximizing dry matter intake in the fresh cow. Note that one pound of dry matter will produce 2.5 pounds of milk, and one pound of extra milk at peak will result in 250 pounds of milk through the rest of the lactation.

That means one pound of extra dry matter intake up to peak milk production equates to 625 pounds of milk through the rest of the lactation. When margins are tight (and when aren’t they?), making the extra effort pays dividends.

Don’t cut corners with your transition and fresh cows, because doing it right will pay you back many times over. Ask your local extension officer for a breakdown on the estimated costs of these fresh cow problems and do the math. PD

Mike Bettle, B.Sc. is a field nutritionist at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies, headquartered in Stewart, Minnesota. For more information, call Mike at ( 800) 422-3649 or send an e-mail to

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Mike Bettle
Animal Physiology and Field Nutritionist
Form-A-Feed Inc.

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