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Prepartum cow comfort affects postpartum health events

Andrea Bloom Published on 19 January 2010

Cow comfort is a top priority for most dairy producers and it becomes especially important during the transition period of a cow’s life.

Dr. Marina von Keyserlingk of the University of British Columbia has done extensive research on the value of understanding behavioral changes during transition. She shared her findings with over 300 attendees at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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Von Keyserlingk highlighted the many changes a dairy cow goes through during the transition period, including dry-off, diet reformulations, calving, separation from the calf, the start of lactation and placement into multiple new groups.

“Talk about a lot of things that happen in a very short period of time,” she said.

Through her work with the university’s animal welfare program, von Keyserlingk has done extensive research into the behavioral changes in animals during transition and how to use those changes to identify sick cows. From that research, she has been able to suggest management practices to address these challenges.

According to von Keyserlingk, upwards of 35 percent of cows get sick during the transition period. Common issues include metritis, subclinical ketosis and mastitis. These issues lead to lower milk production, reproductive efficiency and longevity.

“It doesn’t do you any good in terms of your bottom line,” she said.

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Von Keyserlingk said feeding behavior is a key indicator of an animal’s potential for getting sick. Whereas healthy cattle show declines in dry matter intake the day before calving, sick cows show declines in intake a week before calving and that interval increases even more for very sick cows. When healthy cows visit the feedbunk, they spend time eating, but also simply stand in the area. In contrast, sick cows spend most of their time by the bunk just eating. The healthy cows also tend to displace other cows more often.

“Cows that are bullies in the feedbunk tend to be healthier,” von Keyserlingk said.

The value in recognizing these animal behaviors is the ability to better manage transition cows before sickness can develop. According to von Keyserlingk, one of the most important things a producer can do is to not overstock pens. One problem with overstocking is that it decreases the lying time for each cow, which should be about half of the cow’s time. It also affects eating behavior.

“I would argue it’s a huge precursor to illness,” she said. “As we overstocked, cows were electing not to eat.”

Von Keyserlingk also said that producers should put careful consideration into their feedbunk design and management. Competition was reduced when cattle fed at headlocks versus post-and-rail bunks. When the cows were overstocked at the feeder, transition cows increased in aggressive behavior by 65 percent.

Von Keyserlingk said animal behavior and welfare is a relatively new field for livestock researchers. However, she said it marks “an era of the future” and provides practical ways for producers to best manage their animals for improved health and productivity.

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She said, “Good science helps lead to change.” PD

Andrea Bloom works for Vita Plus in Madison, Wisconsin.

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