The transition period is a critical time in a dairy cow’s life, and providing proactive care is a vital practice that can help reduce calving-related disorders, boost milk production and extend cow longevity, according to Boehringer Ingelheim.
A myriad of potential issues can arise, and while this crucial period requires special attention and management, due diligence can pay off in the long run.
Managing changing nutrition needs
“There are three different rations: one that’s formulated on paper, one that gets mixed and fed and one that the cows actually eat,” said Dr. Jennifer Roberts, a veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim. “In a perfect world, these would all be the same, but in reality, cows can be picky eaters, and particular care needs to be given to ensure her ration is balanced for the cow’s metabolic needs and is properly mixed with the correct components and proper particle length to minimize sorting.”
Providing an adequate diet to align with changing nutritional needs is an important component to success during the transition period’s three milestones:
1. Dry period. During the dry period, managing calcium levels through a negative dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD) diet is recommended. Studies have shown that a well-formulated negative DCAD ration results in increased dry matter intake in early lactation, increased milk production, decreased disease incidence, fewer displaced abomasa and improved reproductive performance, Roberts noted.
2. Calving. Nutrition plays a big part in supporting energy demands, calcium needs and immune function for the transition cow, particularly around the time of calving. Low blood calcium can contribute to dystocia, or difficulty in the calving process, by decreasing muscle tone and uterine contractions. Roberts added that uterine contractions after calving also aid in expulsion of any contaminants in the reproductive tract that may have resulted from calving. Normal postpartum involution of the uterus is essential for future reproductive health and is aided by a strong immune system.
3. Postpartum. Immediately after calving, cows must adjust to the high calcium demands of colostrum and subsequent milk production. During this time, it can be difficult for a cow to maintain calcium balance, thus predisposing her to fresh cow diseases, Roberts said.
“Cows at risk of having low calcium can benefit from an oral calcium supplement at calving and again 12 hours later,” Roberts noted. “This practice provides much-needed calcium to fresh cows when blood calcium levels may be at their lowest.”
“In general, DCAD is a blanket protocol to maintain energy balance, but when you’re looking at each individual animal, that’s where an oral calcium supplement comes in,” said Celso Veldañez Jr. with Consolidated Dairy Management in Texas. “Some cows will get what they need through a DCAD diet, but what if other cows don’t? That’s where supplementing really saves us.”
Roberts said an added benefit is that calcium supplementation may also help reduce other issues calcium-deficient cows may be more prone to, like decreased feed intake and ketosis.
Throughout the transition period, a calving cow should get all the special care she deserves, from an appropriately formulated diet and comfortable bedding to plenty of space and relief from potential causes of stress. With more than 35% of all dairy cows having at least one clinical disease event during the first 90 days of milk, it’s important to observe fresh cows daily, Roberts said.
Early detection of diseases
In the postpartum period, the changing demand for calcium can often lead to hypocalcemia. Careful monitoring and blood testing, especially if a herd has been affected in the past, can help prevent or treat the issue while also helping reduce the number of disorders that can affect milk production and subsequent reproductive performance, Boehringer Ingelheim said.
Cows with persistent or delayed subclinical hypocalcemia are more likely to develop subsequent early-lactation diseases, be removed from the herd and have reduced milk yield compared with normocalcemic cows or cows with transient subclinical hypocalcemia, highlighting the need for diligent monitoring, Roberts said.
“Prevention of many fresh cow diseases relies very heavily on management,” she added.
Pay particular attention to the cows that have previously calved, as older cows are more likely to be at higher risk for hypocalcemia due to their greater milk production compared to first-lactation animals. Targeted oral calcium supplementation for cows in their second lactation and greater is one strategy for managing subclinical hypocalcemia in this group of higher-risk cows.
Minimizing stress during freshening
Many issues that can arise during the postpartum period have to do with stress, including decreased immune function, ketosis, metritis, mastitis and displaced abomasum, Boehringer Ingelheim said. These health events can lead to other problems like poor milk production, impaired reproductive performance or early removal from the herd.
“A well-laid transition plan that includes diligent management practices to ensure a stress-free environment can help your herd through this period seamlessly,” Roberts explained. “Providing a calm environment with adequate space and relief from potential causes of stress seem like small actions but can have lasting impacts.”
She said a key piece of providing a stress-free environment throughout the transition period is prioritizing comfort. Leading up to and following calving, take measures to optimize cow comfort, such as ensuring adequate stocking densities and feed bunk space, using comfortable bedding, installing cooling systems, limiting pen moves and maintaining a clean environment.
“Some of the best dairy producers out there understand that things like cooling, comfort and stocking density are going to help cows perform at their optimal peak,” Veldañez said. “It’s important to have animals in tiptop shape so that they can really perform during their lactation.”
How the cow handles the stress associated with calving and moves through the transition period influences her production, health, ability to become pregnant again and ability to remain in the herd. Be sure to work with a local veterinarian to develop prevention and treatment protocols that reduce the risk of diseases occurring during transition to improve herd health and performance.