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A successful blueprint for transitioning dairy cows

Nigel Cook for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 September 2021

Excellent feeds and feeding are paramount for a successful transition from the dry period to early lactation for our dairy cows. However, we’ve also learned that facility design and management are also critical components that should not be overlooked.

In 2005, we came up with the Wisconsin Blueprint for transition cow facilities – at a time when it was almost unheard of to construct purpose-built facilities for non-milking cows. We asked dairy producers to provide four things:

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  1. Allow all the cows to eat at the same time by providing 30 inches of bunk space per cow from 21 days before to 21 days after calving.
  2. Allow all the cows to rest on a comfortable dry surface – typically deep-bedded sand or a straw-bedded pack.
  3. Allow all the cows sufficient space to rest at the same time – one stall per cow or a minimum of 100 square feet of bedded area per cow.
  4. Minimize regrouping stress within the critical period two to seven days before calving.

Since then, we’ve added one more priority to the list: Provide cows with a quiet place to calve. Giving the cow a quiet place to calve, with limited disturbance by humans and other animals, allows for a more natural birth with a lowered risk for dystocia and stillbirth.

We made this blueprint available on our Dairyland Initiative website and showcased in virtual tours the different solutions producers implemented to comply with these criteria. The blueprint was adopted widely, not only in Wisconsin and the U.S., but globally, and in a recent 2015 Wisconsin survey, we found that approximately 75% of farms were in compliance. The most significant challenge remaining was the control of stocking density in the pre-fresh pens, since this is the one pen on the farm where the cow gets to decide when she leaves, not the herd manager.

Herd transition performance has noticeably improved over the same time period, with Dairy Herd Information Association metrics – such as early lactation milk (Transition Cow Index), turnover and death rates less than 60 days in milk (DIM) – and stillbirth rates showing positive improvement. However, the battle is not yet won, and many herds still lag behind in performance.

Our attention more recently has shifted to a greater focus on managing the cow in the early lactation period. We’ve recognized the importance of timely, accurate and efficient detection of sick cows. This requires the input of highly trained caregivers, screening programs that minimize the duration of lockup each day and the importance of identifying high-risk cows for greater attention: older cows (parity 3 or more), cows and heifers that had a difficult calving (assisted, twin, or stillbirth) and cows that are lame in the fresh pen. Prior knowledge of these high-risk cows can expedite the screening program by reducing the numbers of cows for additional tests (such as blood ketone testing), and we know they respond well to supplemental treatments, such as propylene glycol and oral calcium. This accuracy and efficiency of detection and treatment is paramount since we cannot afford to make the rest of the cows sick while we work to find and treat sick cows. Remember, lockup times greater than two hours per day will significantly impact resting times in the fresh pen.

We are also hopeful that additional technologies will assist in the screening process. None of them can replace the work of a well-trained and experienced cow person, but those people are becoming a luxury these days. Most promising appears to be the use of a combination of activity and rumination monitoring, and as the use of these technologies becomes more commonplace, we hope to be able to better evaluate their performance and contribution to an excellent transition.

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For information about transition cow facility design, click here.  end mark

Nigel Cook is currently chair of the Department of Medical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and manages the Dairyland Initiative.

Nigel Cook
  • Nigel Cook

  • Veterinarian
  • UW – Madison
  • School of Veterinary Medicine

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