Moving cows is an everyday activity that deserves great attention and care. Especially during fragile stages of their life cycle, pen moves can directly impact the dairy cow’s ability to maximize feed intake, which will influence herd milk production and health.
The changes of the transition period
One critical time period during the dairy cow’s life cycle is the transition period. The transition spans a six-week timeframe including the three weeks before calving through three weeks after the calf is born. Many changes take place in the cow and her environment during this time, which will impact how well the cow performs in the milking herd.
Pen moves during the transition period can have a negative impact on the amount of feed consumed by the cow. During this time cows are often prone to eat less feed anyway, so pen moves can make dry matter intake decline even more. How often you move cows – and how they are treated during the move – will impact how much they eat.
Considerations before pen moves
When considering moves during the transition period, consider the following:
• Avoid unnecessary pen moves. During the transition period your goal is to reduce any stress the cow may experience. When you maintain the best possible environment, your cows are more likely to keep eating.
Avoid unnecessary pen changes, as each move is likely to result in a drop in feed intake. When moves are necessary, decrease the negative impact by moving animals once weekly and in groups of 10 or more animals.
• Group cows appropriately. One of the reasons cows eat less is due to animal dominance, which is especially seen when younger females are grouped with older cows.
Following pen moves it usually takes a few days for the “pecking order” between new penmates to be established. Separate younger cows from older cows to encourage feed intake across all age groups and minimize the dominance of older cows.
• Your approach matters. Remain quiet and calm around cows during the moving process. Extra noise and commotion can cause unnecessary stress.
Following the pen moves
After a pen move is made, monitor the following to identify potential problems early:
• Dry matter intake. Right after pen moves cows tend to eat less, so watch animals closely to ensure their appetites return quickly. If individual cows are not eating, share this information with the herd manager so the animal can be examined and treated in a timely manner.
• Milk production. How much milk a cow is producing will also show how she is responding to a pen change. How much feed the cow consumes directly impacts milk production, so use this metric to make sure the ration delivered to the herd is providing the nutrients they need for peak performance.
• Behavior. Watch cows closely to ensure they have access to the feedbunk and waterers, adequate space to lie down and are not stressed in their new environment.
Protocols for feeding during a pen change
Having a plan in place is important before the first cow is moved. Work with the herdsman to put together a protocol to ensure cows are moved effectively. Questions to ask as you put the plan together include:
• Is this pen move absolutely necessary?
• Are we minimizing the amount of time cows are away from their pen and the feedbunk?
• Are we providing adequate space for each animal in this pen?
• Can each animal have the appropriate time she needs at the feedbunk to maximize intake?
• Does this process reduce stress on the animal?
Take the time to watch and listen before, during and after pen moves. Especially during the critical stages of the cow’s lactation – like the transition period – how cows are treated during moves and how they react to their new environment can directly impact how well they eat and perform in the milking herd. EL
Dr. Jesus Torralba
Technical Services Manager, Mexico
Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition