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Transition management will yield profitable results

John Hibma Published on 11 October 2011

One of the foundational elements of successful and profitable commercial dairy farming is the continuous entry of fresh cows into a milking herd. The fresh cow that’s in proper health will be the most cost-efficient cow on the dairy – having the highest feed-conversion-to-milk- production efficiency.

Herd profiles that show low days in milk (DIM) indicate there are more cows freshening in a herd than there are cows headed for the dry corral. Even in the most desperate of economies, fresh cows are critical to keeping the business solvent.

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The transition period – that time from three weeks prior to calving to three weeks after calving – is considered to be the most stressful for dairy cows. We expect a lot out of a dairy cow every year – bear a healthy calf and then immediately begin producing 10 to 15 tons of milk during the course of that year, and do it all over again next year.

Dr. Tom Overton, a professor at Cornell University, notes that a successful transition program will include minimizing metabolic disorders, maximizing milk production in early lactation, minimizing loss of body condition and maintaining a healthy immune system and healthy reproductive system that will enable the cow to get pregnant again in just a few months.

Successful dairy farmers manage to get their cows to do all of those things – and do them well.

The Welcome Stock Dairy Farm in Schuylerville, New York, is owned and operated by the Peck family. William Peck and his sons, Willard and Neil, milk about 500 cows 3x and maintain pretty close to a 90-lb-per- cow milk average most of the year.

The herd has averaged for the previous 12 months 3.83 percent butterfat and 3.14 percent milk protein. Welcome Stock Farm is well known in registered circles and the National Dairy Shrine recently named William Peck as its 2011 Distinguished Dairy Cattle Breeder.

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According to the Pecks’ long-time nutritionist, Rawson Gamage, a close-up diet incorporating anionic salts has been in place at the farm for over 10 years. Gamage says the primary reason a close-up diet is used at this dairy is to avoid metabolic issues, allowing cows to get off to a faster start and higher milk peaks.

The close-up diet is balanced for about 32 pounds (dry matter) of feed consumption. Both cows and springing heifers are put into a close-up pen around three weeks prior to freshening. Average days dry for the herd is around 50 days, so the dry cows spend about half their time in the far-off group and the close-up group.

After freshening, the milk cows receive a one-group TMR which is balanced to support 90 pounds of milk in about 55 pounds of dry matter. Cows routinely peak in the Peck herd at over 120 or more pounds of milk.

One of the key elements of properly managing an anionic close-up diet is the monitoring of urine pH. Gamage routinely (about once per month) will take urine pHs or when there’s a significant change in forages. His pH target is in the 6 to 7 range.

The acidifier in the close-up diet is increased or decreased in order to maintain the pH in that range. Crude protein for this diet is currently 13.75 percent and the calcium level is 1.27 percent of dry matter.

The current potassium level is about 1 percent. Even though potassium is low in this diet, and some research suggests removing anionic salts from a low-potassium diet, Gamage feels the acidification in the close-up diet is still critical to good transitions in the herd.

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Rumen-protected choline, yeast and blood meal are also included along with the chloride-based acidifier in this diet.

Effective transitioning from the dry pen to the milking string also includes other aspects of dry cow management. No matter how good the nutrition program is, if cows are heat-stressed or if they freshen with excessive body conditioning, they may still very well experience metabolic problems.

Many dairies will spend time and money to cool the milking herd, but the dry cows are left to languish in hot or humid conditions.

Especially during that final week before calving, cows’ energy status must remain optimal with the rumen full and working. A cow that hasn’t eaten for a week due to heat stress will most likely have issues no matter how well-formulated the diet is.

Cows that are overconditioned going into the dry corral or that gain weight while in the dry corral are often prone to ketosis which can, in turn, lead to displaced abomasums.

Cornell’s Overton also stresses the importance of keeping first-calf heifers and older cows separated prior to calving. The competition at the feedbunk, especially if dry pens are overcrowded, often prevent heifers from getting enough feed.

Both the elevated stress levels and propensity to mobilize body fat will lead to elevated NEFA levels that, again, can lead to ketosis and other problems. According to Overton, “A staggering 70 percent of herds had more than 25 percent of their first-calf heifers with elevated NEFA during the pre-calving period, which clearly indicates that dry matter intakes are being compromised in these animals."

"Furthermore, nearly 50 percent of herds had more than 25 percent of their first-calf animals with elevated NEFA during the postpartum period.”

Since the number of first-calf heifers in dairy herds is a direct function of the annual cull rate and cull rates in most large herds are 30 percent or more, heifers make up about one-third of the herd at any given time. Proper transitioning of first-calf heifers into the milking herd is as important as the transitioning of older cows out of the dry period.

Many different management factors must come together for the successful operation of dairy farms.

The steady flow of fresh cows is critical to that success, and a transition program that includes proper balancing of energy, protein and vitamin/mineral requirements, as well as grouping strategies for younger and older cows, along with the strategic use of anionic salts, will significantly improve dairy herd performance. PD

Some of the information for this article comes from PRO-DAIRY . Thanks also to the Peck Family and John Azzone of Church and Dwight .

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John Hibma
Nutritionist
Central Connecticut Co-operative Farms Association

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