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Controlling Ketosis in Dairy Cows

Close up of dairy cows at the feed bunk.
Dr. Daryl Kleinschmit

Lead Researcher – Dairy
Zinpro Corporation

Ketosis in dairy cows is a metabolic disorder that typically occurs within two weeks post-calving. After calving, the demand for milk production increases substantially, and cows are unable to consume adequate energy to sustain performance, causing them to be in a negative energy balance. As a result, cows mobilize body fat in order to maintain energy for milk production and post-calving recovery, which increases blood levels of non-esterified fatty acids (NEFAs) and lowers body condition score (BCS). When NEFAs overwhelm the liver’s capacity to metabolize them, an excess load of ketone bodies (partially oxidized fatty acids) will result, which ultimately may lead to ketosis. Excessive inflammation around the point of calving can increase the risk of ketosis.

Learn More: Transition Cow Nutrition Requirements

Clinical ketosis in dairy cows can have a negative impact on peak milk yield. If cows have a lower milk yield at their peak, it will have a negative impact on total milk production throughout the entire lactation.

Ketosis may also impair dry matter intake, which increases the rate of BCS loss and will have a negative impact on reproductive performance. Cows that lost 0.5 to 1 point of BCS within the first five weeks post-calving were shown to be open 16 days longer compared to cows that lost less than 0.5 BCS five weeks post-calving.

How to Spot Ketosis in Your Lactating Dairy Cows

The symptoms of ketosis in dairy cows are easy to spot without running tests when it is severe and the cow is showing clinical signs. In severe cases, cows may have a lethargic look. They will go off feed and will lose body condition in a short amount of time due to the mobilization of body fat to make up for the negative energy balance. Losing a full body condition score in the first 30 days of milk is unacceptable.

Excessive BCS loss, especially in the first 30 days of milk, is an indicator of a severe negative energy balance. Cows that lose significant body condition during the first 30 days of milk will take longer to get pregnant and have less persistent lactations. Significant body condition loss during the first 30 days of milk can also have a negative impact on milk quality due to a greater inability for a cow to fight intramammary infection.

The subclinical state is more prevalent in early lactation cows and can be detected by blood or milk ketone tests.

To catch ketosis before it becomes clinical, dairy operations have been conducting routine blood tests as a part of their fresh cow screening protocol. These blood tests detect elevated ketone levels in the blood indicative of subclinical ketosis in dairy cows. Ketones appear in a cow’s blood when there is a glucose (energy) deficiency.

Proper Management to Control Ketosis in Dairy Cows

While some nutritional factors can play a role in controlling the negative impacts of ketosis in dairy cows, management is key. In fact, some cows can have high levels of ketones and still perform if it is managed properly.

The following management practices can help you control the negative consequences of ketosis on your dairy operation:

1. Prevent overcrowding in your transition cow facilities.

As dairies become larger, there is often a tendency for overcrowding, especially during times when there is a flush of calving. Dairy producers may have adjusted their facilities as their dairy herd has expanded, but many still have not adjusted their transition cow facilities to match the size of their herd. Overcrowding can reduce feed intake by adding stress and by physically limiting the amount of feed bunk space available to each cow.  Lastly, overcrowding negatively affects quality lying time, which increases the risk of hoof lesions developing in the first 100 days in milk.

2. Don’t co-mingle cows and heifers.

Heifers will be more stressed when mingling with older cows. This can also cause a reduction in dry matter intake and further contributes to a negative energy balance.

3. Reduce the number of pen movements.

There is a social hierarchy in dairy herds, and moving a cow into a new pen with cows it is not familiar with can add additional stress. Try moving the cows as a group so they can be with other cows they are familiar with.

4. Monitor body condition scores in late-lactation cows.

Group body condition scores should be monitored in the last trimester of lactation and corrected before cows enter the dry cow pen. Once they are in the dry pen, it will be difficult to correct their body condition score without increasing the risk of transition cow disorders.

Performance Trace Minerals: Part of a Ketosis Mitigation Program

As mentioned previously, inflammation, whether it is from mastitis, lameness or other health events, will consume glucose and lead to ketosis in dairy cows, especially in cows that have recently calved and are already dealing with a reduced dry matter intake. If you can control inflammation, you can control ketosis.

Learn more: Managing Reproductive Tract Inflammation

Performance trace minerals provide a more robust immune response during calving and during transition, helping to improve a cow’s inflammatory response and reducing the incidence and severity of ketosis.

Zinc is important for improving gut integrity. The gut is responsible for 70% of an animal’s immune function. Manganese is important for gluconeogenesis and plays a role in calcium reabsorption, while copper is important for immune function.

Cobalt plays a role in vitamin B-12 production, which is essential for gluconeogenesis. Chromium, in markets where it is approved, is important for numerous functions, including glucose metabolism and insulin activity.

Availa®Dairy, Availa®Se* and MICROPLEX®* contain performance trace minerals that aid in controlling inflammation and helping mitigate the impact of ketosis on dairy operations.

Audit Your Management Systems

In addition to including Zinpro Performance Minerals® in their transition cow diets, dairy producers should implement a fresh cow monitoring strategy with their veterinarian. Ensure that you are covering all transition issues and all your prevention measures are in place.

Dairy producers should also consider auditing their transition cow management. Look at feed space, group changes, cow comfort, heat abatement and your hoof trimming protocol prior to dry-off. Visit the Dairyland Initiative online for more tips on transition cow facility management, grouping strategies and dry cow management.

To learn more about including performance trace minerals in your transition cow nutrition plan, contact your Zinpro representative today.

*All products not available in all markets.

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