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6-minute read

Transition Cow Tips to Improve Milk Production and Reproduction

Dairy cow at the waterer.
Dr. Huw McConochie

Dairy Nutritionist
Zinpro Corporation

The transition period is a critical and high-risk time for dairy cows. During this period, cows go through drastic metabolic changes as they prepare to transition into lactation, start producing milk and repair the reproductive tract while also developing an oocyte to prepare for their next pregnancy.

The goal of transition cow management is to maintain dry matter intake as high as possible up to the point of calving and to limit the reduction in feed intake that typically occurs around the point of transition. Equally important is controlling energy intake; not too much and not too little. Additionally, you need to limit stress because it can have a negative effect on the metabolism and increase inflammation, which can reduce the capacity of the liver to produce glucose. Excessive inflammation also utilizes nutrients that would otherwise be used for milk production.

Read more: How to Manage Inflammation in Transition Cows

If you can keep the diet consistent and cows are provided adequate feed space and lying space in your facilities, it’s a simple process.

Optimize Energy Intake for Milk Production

When it comes to nutrient partitioning, maintenance is the primary need, followed by milk production. If a cow is in a negative energy balance, that cow will utilize fat stores to produce high quantities of milk, therefore sacrificing body condition and future reproductive success, resulting in poor persistency in lactation. Persistency in lactation is especially important for profitability.

A cow only has a definitive amount of fat stores, so if that cow burns through those quickly and dry matter intake is suboptimal, then the cow will not be able to maintain a high level of milk production because there is insufficient energy to drive it. If feed intake is optimized and body condition score loss is minimized, it may result in lower peak milk production, but will lead to a better persistency over the entire lactation.

The key nutrient for cows in the early lactation period is energy, more specifically glucose, primarily from starch and highly-digestible forage. Balance is critical here, however, as too much starch right away can increase the risk of acidosis, causing inflammation in the body. For the best results, dairy producers should incrementally increase their cows’ non-fiber carbohydrate (NFC) levels from the close-up diet to the high-production diet to allow the rumen to adjust.

It’s also important to limit the amount of fat you’re feeding your post-fresh cows. Feeding too much fat in the early post fresh period, which has to be processed by the liver, reduces the ability of the liver to produce glucose, further increasing the negative energy balance.

Improve Energy Status Now to Improve Reproduction Later On

Maintaining a healthy body condition and optimizing feed intake during the transition period does not only affect milk production, but also reproduction during the next breeding cycle.

A cow having a severe glucose deficiency or having sacrificed too much body condition in favor of milk production has a direct effect on the quality of the oocyte developing in the ovaries. Therefore, cows that are in an extreme negative energy balance will have a reduced chance of getting pregnant on time — or at all — during the subsequent lactation. A successful transition avoids these problems but for those cows that have issues, the voluntary waiting period can help.

This voluntary waiting period — the period of time between calving and when dairy producers start inseminating cows — can last anywhere from 50 to 70 days. It’s important to divide transition cows into two groups: those that are facing challenges and those that have had a good, healthy transition period. Cows that are facing challenges during transition, such as losing a lot of body condition, lameness or any other issues, may need to have a longer voluntary waiting period. This will give those cows time to get back to a better energy status, increasing their chances of getting pregnant.  

Six Transition Cow Management Tips

Transition cow management is not rocket science, but so many dairy producers get it wrong. These six transition cow management tips will help maximize milk production and improve reproductive success:

  1. Provide adequate bunk space. You need at least 76 cm (30 in) of bunk space per pre- and post-fresh cow to optimize feed and energy intake. If you’re using lockups or headlocks, remember that cows in a group will only ever occupy 80% of the available standard size headlocks.   So, ensure you have more headlocks than cows. Another option is to install 76-90 cm (30-35 in) center headlocks which account for the larger size of a pregnant cow.
  2. Where possible, utilize the “just-in-time” management protocol. This involves walking cows every hour and, as soon as you see a cow start going into labor, she is moved into the maternity pen at that point. If the cows are in stalls and you can’t walk the cows every hour, I suggest moving her into the maternity pen less than two days or more than 7 days before calving. If you move her between 2 and 7 days prior to calving it is going to depress dry matter intake prematurely before calving.
  3. Maintain social stability. When you move cows between groups, this causes stress. The best option, of course, is to have what we call an all-in all-out system or sequential fill system which creates socially stable groups during transition. A group of cows due to calve during the same week are put into a pen no less that 21 days before calving. Then they would stay in that pen all the way through calving. This gives you a lot of social stability, because you are not introducing new cows in the pen, so you have a very stable pen and this tends to have a very positive effect on dry matter intake and reducing stress.
  4. Enhance lying time. You need to provide these pre and post-fresh cows with optimal comfort. You need them to lie down for as long as possible because their hooves or claw structures are very susceptible to damage at this point which can lead to inflammation and lameness during lactation.
  5. Improve heat abatement strategies. Heat stressed transition cows are more prone to transition diseases and will produce less milk during lactation. Ensure effective cooling with fans producing a wind velocity of over 8 km (5 miles) per hour over the lying area and utilize soakers or high-pressure fog when conditions are extreme. Keeping cows cool encourages them to lie down. Cows that are experiencing heat stress will stand for longer periods in an attempt to reduce body temperature. This increased stress reduces feed intake and increases the risk of lameness.
  6. Manage lameness and digital dermatitis. I recommend that cows have their claws trimmed a month before dry-off as opposed to at the time of dry-off. This allows you to inspect a cow and then re-inspect a month later to ensure the cow is not lame at calving. Remember to continue the footbath protocol through the dry period to reduce digital dermatitis and focus on hygiene in your transition pens.

Performance Trace Minerals for Transition Cow Success

Performance trace minerals, including those from Availa®4 or Availa®Dairy, can help transition cows mount a rapid and robust inflammatory response sparing more energy and nutrients for milk production and reproduction. Performance trace minerals have also been shown to reduce the incidence of transition diseases and improve the reproductive success of both healthy and challenged transition cows. Unlike inorganic trace minerals, Zinpro Performance Minerals® are absorbed through the amino acid transporters. This allows the minerals to avoid antagonistic interactions and reach the intestinal lining to optimize absorption and maximize a cow’s genetic potential.

Learn more: Performance Trace Minerals: A Category of One

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

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