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The transition cow: Intervention or interference?

Martha Baker Published on 06 November 2014

The route from the dry pen to the lactating pen is a very important stage in a cow’s life. Fresh cows set the pace for the entire herd, and the first 60 days post-calving define a cow’s lactation.

In order for a herd to hit its production goals, the fresh cow program must be dialed in. But is it possible we’ve moved the needle too far with our fresh-cow monitoring programs? Are we interfering too often and sabotaging our own success?

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Detecting problems while letting the cow ‘be a cow’
Early detection of illness is a key factor in keeping all cows healthy, but with transition cows it becomes critical. It can be challenging to notice small changes in an animal that may indicate her health is heading down the wrong path.

Often, these changes are not visible to the human eye. Fresh cow monitoring programs that include monitoring temperatures and BHBA levels have allowed many herds to make huge strides forward in their transition cow programs.

The caveat to a good fresh cow monitoring program is to keep the lock-up time for transition cows to a minimum. Fresh cow monitoring programs that require lengthy lock-ups diminish the returns. In my personal experience, too often I run across herds where the transition cow groups are locked up longer than necessary while an employee follows a strict fresh cow monitoring checklist, evaluating every cow in the pen.

If you haven’t recently evaluated the length of time the fresh cows in your herd are locked up, it may be time to take a closer look. Determine if the length of time is really necessary. Can the goal of monitoring for early disease detection be accomplished with a shorter lock-up time? If you could shorten the lock-up time, what impact could that have on your fresh cow program?

Understanding the cow
Herds with successful transition groups have very few metabolic issues, strong feed intakes and mature cows making more than 90 pounds by 14 days in milk. These herds also typically have in excess of a 40 percent first-service conception rate.

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These insights tell me that at the time of transition, the animal’s immune system was strong and the energy balance was correct because the cow was able to conceive and maintain the pregnancy.

These highly successful herds made a commitment to understand the cow and have forgone making decisions based on what a meter, clipboard or thermometer is telling the person in charge of the fresh cow monitoring program.

For example, the difference between a beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHBA) score of 0.9, 1.1 and 1.3 on paper isn’t very big; however, visually those animals may look very different.

The cow at 0.9 who does not have her muzzle in the TMR might be in trouble, while the one at 1.3 who is aggressively eating just might be in a great place. If you are following a strict protocol, you might end up treating the wrong animal.

Fresh cow monitoring programs have been critical for many dairies to improve their transition programs, but it has also allowed us to put relatively unskilled people in roles meant for highly skilled people. If a herdsperson is not looking beyond the numbers, the fresh cow program may be taking a hit.

The right person in the ‘right’ seat
Ask yourself: Do you have team members who have the ability to make a decision based on what the cow is actually doing, not what’s recorded on a sheet of paper?

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Employing a herdsperson who truly understands animal husbandry and how to detect unhealthy animals via observation, udder palpation, walking pens and being less invasive may be a more effective alternative for monitoring transition cows.

Provide the right nutritional tools
One of the least invasive ways to set your transition cows up for success is giving them a well-balanced, complete nutritional package. This requires no poking or prodding, just making sure the diet is optimized and fed to the group.

To make sure your diet is optimized, know your group’s size, condition and intakes. Genetically, these animals are designed to produce tremendous amounts of milk. We simply have to give them the nutritional tools they need and allow them to do their jobs.

Some nutritional tips include manipulating your carbohydrate fractions to ensure each cow has rapidly available carbs, taking advantage of omega-3 fatty acids and limiting byproducts.

No ‘magic potion’
Nutrition certainly plays a role in your transition cow program, but it is one tool in the toolbox. The cow handling and management side is critical to making sure your transition cows reach their peak as soon as possible.

Make a commitment to people, and training those people, so that they know when to intervene and when to let the cow handle the situation. The very best herds with top-notch transition cow programs know when to intervene and ensure that their people have the education, training and the support they need. They put both their people and animals on the route to success. PD

For more information, contact Martha Baker at (716) 863-0755, email her or go to the Purina Animal Nutrition website.

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