Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Northeast dairy’s fresh cow protocols lead to better health

John Hibma Published on 29 February 2012


Fresh cows are the real money makers on a dairy farm. Getting your cows to reach high peaks and to maintain those peaks for several months should be a high-priority goal for all commercial dairy farmers – regardless of which breed you favor.



The more cows that freshen during the course of a year, the greater your herd’s rolling herd average will be. Healthy fresh cows that have transitioned into their lactation with few health issues will become the most efficient milk producers in your herd.

Cows that are about to freshen face a number of immune and metabolic challenges. Reduced feed intakes, during the days before calving, affect energy metabolism, which has been shown to suppress the immune system as well as rumen function.

If not addressed satisfactorily, calcium status and hypocalcemia will rob the lactation of many gallons of milk and also contribute to immune suppression, which often opens the door for additional metabolic issues.

High-producing and healthy fresh cows don’t happen by accident. You need to plan for them and you need to manage them with the appropriate tools.

Fort Hill Dairy Farm, located in Thompson, Connecticut, milks 200 cows and maintains a rolling herd average of more than 24,000 lbs of milk. The daily milk average per cow in December 2011 was more than 80 lbs of milk with components at 3.6 percent butterfat and 3.1 percent protein. Average days-in-milk (DIM) is 136 and more than 70 percent of the herd has an SCC score of less than 2.


Fort Hill Farm co-owner Peter Orr says the farm got its name from an old Native American fort that once stood on the property long before Europeans came along. From the site of the old fort, one can see present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Fort Hill Dairy is a popular Connecticut agri-tourism destination and is also one of six Connecticut dairy farms that produce the popular private label “Farmer’s Cow” brand dairy products.

Besides milking 200 cows, Orr farms about 600 acres – 300+ acres of corn and 200+ acres of hay and haylage. The farm was started by Orr’s father-in-law, Ernest O’Leary, in the 1940s when, at 8 years old, O’Leary was given a cow and a calf as payment for some work he’d done for a neighbor. He later dropped out of school to become a dairy farmer.

Orr, his wife, Kristin, and her sister, Kathy O’Leary, took over the ownership of the farm in 1997. Since that time they have doubled the herd size and tripled the milk production.

Does Fort Hill Dairy have metabolic challenges in its high-producing herd? Of course it does. And herd manager, Spike Zajac, doesn’t miss too many of them. With the assistance of Vermont DHIA, Spike records and monitors every event for every cow and heifer in the herd’s record management system, PC-DART.

Spike doesn’t just record breeding dates, preg checks and due dates. He creates his own user lists and will record any potential health problems, tracking them so as to avoid any unpleasant surprises that may affect future milk production.

Close-up heifers and dry cows are put into a maternity area of the farm’s main barn where, again, they are closely monitored and fed a close-up diet. Spike’s goal is to have both heifers and mature dry cows on the close-up ration as close to 21 days as possible. At the time of entry both cows and heifers are given Mu-Se, J-VAC and SCOURGUARD.


Once they freshen, all heifers and mature cows get a bottle of calcium subcutaneously. As soon as the cows are screened and cleared for antibiotics (leftover from dry-treatment), they are put directly into the milking string where, again, they are closely monitored. If it’s called for, Spike will administer a bottle of CMPK or a stomach drench to a cow that’s just a wee-bit wobbly after freshening.

With milk meters in the parlor it’s easy to check on a daily basis if a cow may be having a problem.

“My single biggest tool that I use to know if a cow’s a little bit off,” says Spike, “is watching how much milk a cow is giving.”

Later into the lactation, if a cow is still off, Spike will take temperatures and treat accordingly.

During 2011, Spike identified and treated 59 cases of lameness. Over half of those occurred during September and October. He says this happens every year on the dairy. It’s a direct result of the cows that freshened during Connecticut’s hot and humid summer months, going off feed and developing laminitis.

It happens every year, and Spike knows it’s coming and is ready to treat those cows. In a herd that had 280 cows freshening during the year, there were 10 DAs (3.5 percent), 32 milk fevers (11.4 percent) and 14 cases of ketosis (5 percent).

Spike does a mastitis check – CMT – on all the fresh heifers. He collects colostrum from all cows and heifers and makes it a point to feed a heifer calf her dam’s colostrum. Spike doesn’t store colostrum due to the difficulty of keeping it uncontaminated. He will use a powdered colostrum replacer if he’s in a pinch.

Keeping a herd of cows averaging more than 24,000 lbs of milk all year long requires close attention to all issues that may impact a cow’s milk production. That, first of all, requires having someone monitoring and observing cows’ routines and habits – not just an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening – but all day long.

Besides doing about one-third of the milking, Spike walks through the freestall barn several times each day, looking for the abnormal. He’s quick to spot – and record – when a cow hasn’t been up to the feedbunk as often as she should – maybe because of a sore foot or a twisted stomach.

On a dairy farm like Fort Hill, every cow is considered a revenue source and is expected to pay its way. A lot of time is spent on getting fresh cows up and peaking and maintaining those high peaks. The key to staying ahead of fresh cow issues and not letting them get out of control is to recognize potential problems quickly and to respond and treat the problem just as quickly.

And if there’s an unwanted and potentially costly trend that’s developing, wasting little time in searching for a solution and incorporating it into the dairy’s management protocol. PD

TOP RIGHT: Peter Orr (left) and Kathy O’Leary, co-owners of Fort Hill Dairy Farm, along with herdsman Spike Zajac (right), pay close attention to all issues that may impact a cow’s milk production. Photo by John Hibma.


John Hibma
Central Connecticut Co-operative
Farms Association