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Transition cows: Preparing for fall challenges

Gabriella Varga Published on 30 August 2010

One of the critical time frames in a cow’s life is around the time before and after calving. Proper dry cow nutrition and management is critical, since decisions made during this period will have a tremendous impact on milk production and health during the next lactation.

As producers begin to think about the next fall harvesting season, it is important also to keep in mind how the cows coming into lactation will be affected by season and the potential new forages that will be provided to this group.

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A sound dry cow program should be designed to accomplish the following objectives:

• Assure adequate intake of a consistent ration.

• Maintain optimum body condition.

• Provide consistent excellent quality, low-potassium forages.

• Prepare the rumen for the lactation diet.

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• Prepare the mammary gland for the next lactation.

• Assure adequate bunk space and individual cow space; limit cow moves.

• Provide adequate water and water availability.

In this article we will focus on two critical control points for providing cows a good transition into lactation: cow comfort and forage needs.

It is extremely important to be able to house and manage (group) the close-up dry cows in a separate pen or area away from far-off dry cows and lactating cows. If space is available, a separate group for first-calf heifers would be ideal. This area should be kept clean and cows made comfortable. Special care should be given to provide adequate bunk (manger) space so cows are able to eat freely (minimum of 24 inches per cow). Intake of feed declines anyway just prior to calving and we in no way want to restrict it by not providing adequate bunk space. It is therefore critical to provide a consistent ration and know how much these cows are eating.

Control of stocking density in the close-up group is not easy, even in a well-designed facility. This group consists of a variable number of cows throughout the year, and sometimes these cows are grouped together for a short period of time under a constant state of flux. Factors influencing throughput have to be managed, and fresh cow problems may often be traced back to environmental changes during a few months in the summer.

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This has a major impact on throughput through the transition cow facility – from being under-stocked during April and May, the facility may be extremely overstocked during July and August, just at the time when these cows will face the next round of heat stress. We know that adequate heat abatement measures for lactating cows is critical, but we now know that dry cows also benefit from reduced heat stress. In addition, overstocking not only influences access to stalls and feed, but affects air quality too. An overstocked special-needs facility (greater than 80 percent) can have associated fresh cow pneumonia problems.

If a two-group dry period strategy is present on the farm, cows need a minimal amount of time to be exposed to the close-up ration (14 to 21 days) and especially critical for first-calf heifers. In a one-group short dry period strategy (45 days), there may be benefits not only from increased consistent exposure to a close-up type ration, but from a reduction in group changes.

Forage quality and consistency and knowing total ration consumption is critical for dry cows. As we approach the fall harvesting season, plan to cover the forages provided to your dry cows so they do not have a drastic change in forage quality, type or quantity. If you run short of corn silage, try not to feed any fresh chop to dry cows. A goal for feeding large-framed cows would be approximately 28 to 32 pounds of dry matter (DM) depending on forage quality. Feeding 28 to 30 pounds of corn silage (as-fed basis) or 8 to 10 pounds (DM basis) can provide additional energy from forage, lowers calcium and potassium levels, and improves ration palatability.

Dry cows fed corn silage at greater than 50 percent of forage DM may become overconditioned and have more metabolic and reproductive problem at calving and in early lactation. Maintaining normal blood calcium levels in dry cow and fresh cow rations is critical. The use of low- potassium forages helps prevent milk fever and hypocalcemia (low blood calcium). These forages will most likely come from fields that have not received manure applications.

Corn silage is normally lower in potassium than alfalfa, but we still need to have them tested to be sure. Also, do not include buffers in the dry cow diet. The sodium has the same effect as potassium in predisposing cows to hypocalcemia. If we can prevent cows from becoming hypocalcemic, we can dramatically reduce the incidences of not only milk fever, but also mastitis, retained placentas and displaced abomasums.

When setting goals for the dry cow program, remember that no single program will fit all cows or all dairy farms. Managers must rely on skill and experience to properly adjust the general program. Factors such as previous milk production, body condition at dry-off, previous health history and age must be considered when developing and adjusting a dry cow management program. However, dairy producers need to be thinking about preparing a cow for calving prior to dry-off and how their forage inventories and cow facilities will change in the early fall months to accommodate these cows and number of cows calving. PD

Gabriella Varga, Animal Science Professor, Penn State University

References omitted due to spacebut are available upon request by sending an email to .

Excerpts from Penn State Dairy Digest, Vol. 10, No. 4

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