Transitioning dairy cattle from dry cows to healthy high-producing lactating cows is the single-most difficult endeavor undertaken on today’s dairy farms. Many studies on the incidence of metabolic problems in early lactation indicate that on average 20 percent of early lactation cows have had one or more metabolic diseases.

Nutritionist / Ghost Hollow Consulting
Kevin Jones is a dairy nutritionist and owner of Ghost Hollow Consulting with his wife, Tammy. Th...

Factor in subclinical ketosis and milk fever, which are hard to detect and report, and that number could reach one-third of freshenings. These health problems lead to culling almost 10 percent of early lactation cattle before they reach 30 days in milk.

The cost of even average transition is enormous. Losing 10 percent of the herd that has the most potential to create profit for the dairy is a huge drain on profits and productivity. Some costs are obvious. Medicine, labor and vet costs incurred trying to save sick animals are pretty straightforward.

Some are not as easy to put a number on. How much is lost on cows sold when they are thin as opposed to their plump late-lactation counterparts? What about the loss on dead cows?

The hardest loss to put a number on is loss of productivity – the cows that don’t peak where they should, don’t breed like they should or are culled in mid-lactation for “low production” caused by poor transition.


Add on top of that the loss in milk from cows that can’t be culled because there aren’t enough early lactation cows to replace them, and even average transition can lower profits $1.50 to $2 per hundredweight.

Over the last 15 years, there has been an enormous amount of transition research published. There have been numerous products developed to aid in improving transition. Most people in the industry realize the importance of improving transition.

This has led to improvement in tools to transition cows better. There are herds achieving a metabolic disease rate of less than 10 percent of freshenings and 30-day cull rate less than 2 percent. What are they doing to achieve these numbers?

First, what is the transition period? Transition is 30 days before to 30 days after calving. The early dry period is not included. Cows in the early dry period, from dry-off to 30 days before calving, have much more flexible requirements than the close-up cows.

The ideal dry period is 45 to 60 days. Loss in performance is seen in dry periods that are too short (less than 40 days) or too long (more than 70 days). Optimum days on the close-up ration are more than 25 days for cows and more than 28 days for first-lactation heifers.

What is the ideal close-up ration? There have been many research papers published evaluating rations to improve transition. These trials showed a few different ways to build better transition rations. The problem with research is they are not able to look at long-term studies or use large numbers of cattle.

The ideal close-up ration needs to encourage high intakes, reduce metabolic problems, maximize milk production after calving, minimize weight loss and dovetail with the post-calving ration to maximize reproduction. Sounds easy enough.

The ingredients in the close-up ration should be the same as the fresh cow ration with a few exceptions. The most important thing to remember about ingredients for close-up cows is the quality. As she nears calving, the close-up cow will eat less and need more nutrients, making digestibility of feeds even more important.

A good-quality grass hay that is low in potassium is the cornerstone to creating the perfect close-up ration. Low-potassium oat hay is a wonderful close-up ingredient. Straw will work, but performance is better on grass or small-grain hays.

Low-potassium alfalfa hay is a good addition, along with corn silage. Be careful with haylage or small-grain silage because of potassium and soluble protein.

As for other ingredients, most of the commodities included in the fresh ration can be used. Be careful with soluble protein and byproducts that are high in phosphorus. A good bypass soy works great for the protein source. Corn should be the main energy source. Keep fat to a minimum, especially vegetable fat from byproducts.

The mineral content of the close-up diet is critical to achieving the best transition. Both cows and first-lactation heifers respond positively to a diet with a low DCAD. Again, highest-quality ingredients should be used.

Magnesium sulfate is a great source of magnesium that is highly available to the cow. There are a few DCAD products available commercially. Use the ones low in soluble protein. Trace minerals should be organic. High levels of vitamin E will help minimize retained placentas and metritis.

Moving on to the fresh cow diet, the question is often asked: “Is there a need for a separate fresh diet?” Part of the answer is “How long will they be on the fresh cow diet?”

Cows on a fresh diet less than 20 days will benefit from a “step-up program” – increasing energy about 10 percent from the close-up diet and lowering fiber, then putting them on the lactating ration at 14 to 20 days. Cows on the fresh diet longer than 20 days run the risk of losing too much weight on a lower-energy diet.

A perfect close-up ration is one of the keys to top-notch transition, but by far not the only key. A huge part of the transition is the “art of transition” provided by the management team.

Getting cows to the close-up pens at the right time, monitoring the pen density, finding cows that need attention or treatment and providing the right treatment. Management of the close-ups is of equal or more importance than the ration. The transition program can’t flourish if either area is neglected.

Pen density is a big key. Overcrowding both before and after freshening hurts performance. Cows during transition don’t handle overcrowding like they can in later lactation. Most close-up pens are undersized. In order to keep cows on the close-up ration for the optimum time, many dairies are feeding the close-up ration to more than one pen.

Cows are moved to the regular close-up pen as room allows. This keeps density down but allows cows to be on the close-up ration longer.

The herdsmen in charge of the transition program are very important to success. Good cow-men or cow-women are essential. The ability to find cows that need attention quickly and provide the right treatment is key.

Many fresh cows are handled and treated too much. Less is better. If the ration, facilities and cow handling are precise, a vast majority of the fresh cows will fly through transition needing no treatment at all.

What makes transition so hard is the willingness of today’s cows to milk. Even when they are not feeling perfect and not eating well, their genes are screaming for more milk. This can cause a cascade of events, and eventually she will basically milk herself to death.

With today’s technology and knowledge, the transition events can not only be managed, but managed in such a way that profitability is greatly increased. Transition is very complicated and has many moving parts. Dairymen with great transition pay attention to every little detail and make the changes necessary to allow cows to fly through transition. PD

Kevin Jones is a dairy nutritionist and owner of Ghost Hollow Consulting with his wife, Tammy. The company provides nutritional consulting, feed testing, whole-farm records analysis and employee training. He can be contacted by email .

If the ration, facilities and cow handling are precise, a vast majority of the fresh cows will fly through transition needing no treatment at all. Photo by PD staff.