Calving is not a disease, so why is freshening a significant health risk on some dairy farms? I use the following five keys to unlock bottlenecks in transition cow programs in my practice. 1) Facilities and cow comfort 2) Feeding 3) Vaccination protocols 4) Milk quality 5) Disease prevention and monitoring

Facilities and cow comfort
Freestalls, bedded packs, pastures or dry lots can all work if managed correctly. Transition cows need 30 inches of bunk space with a stocking density of less than 85 percent. Crowding close-up and fresh cows is a recipe for disaster. Social stress, different nutrient requirements and their inability to handle acidified diets, makes separating heifers from cows a strategy that pays big dividends.

The goal is to minimize dry matter intake (DMI) depression pre-fresh and maximize DMI post- fresh. High-fiber diets formulated by experienced nutritionists can help improve fresh cow results. Straw or grassy hay with low potassium (K) work best but must be chopped to minimize sorting. Adding water may be necessary for best results. The two most important ingredients to balance correctly are starch and protein.

Dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD) balancing is the best way to reduce fresh cow calcium imbalances. Checking urine pH levels is essential when acidifying, with Holsteins best in the 6.1 to 6.8 range and Jerseys or crossbreds at 5.5 to 6.4.

The fresh pen is challenging because of diverse DMIs. Again, protein and starch levels are critical with enough effective fiber to fill the rumen. Don’t leave cows in this pen too long.


Early fresh cow problems often start in the close-up or maternity pen, while later problems tend to start in the fresh pen. Depressed DMIs, crowding or sorting are often the problem. Measuring non-esterified fatty acids (NEFAs) in the close-up pen and ß hydroxybutyric acids (BHBAs) in the fresh pen can help evaluate energy imbalances that lead to more severe metabolic problems.

Disease prevention is essential for a successful transition cow program. A healthy, well-functioning immune system anchors disease prevention efforts and is achieved by implementing Keys 1, 2 and Key 3, an effective vaccination program. The best adviser to develop such a protocol is your attending veterinarian.

Milk quality
According to the National Mastitis Council, up to 60 percent of fresh cow environmental mastitis cases can originate during the dry period. Two weeks post dry-off and two weeks pre-calving are the periods of greatest risk. Mastitis is the reason overcrowded pens, dirty freestalls, wet pack areas, poorly groomed dry lots and no fly control are very expensive mistakes.

Maternity pen management
Research has verified that both large pack areas and individual box stalls can produce healthy calves and fresh cows. Dr. Ken Nordlund advocates all-in/all-out calving groups to reduce socialization stress. The data is convincing but may be difficult to implement on farms with rigid facilities. New designs or remodeling projects should consider this type of calving scheme and create pens to make it work.

The maternity manager and the veterinarian must create calving protocols. Cleanliness and good decision making are critical to successful calving programs. For best results, train, train and retrain with your veterinarian.

Disease monitoring
Keys 1-4 focus on disease prevention. The goal of Key 5 is to make a quick, accurate diagnosis, initiate a treatment to achieve a cure and implement changes to prevent new cases. Establishing protocols, monitoring compliance and capturing data daily are essential to measure the results. Marking systems on the cow can help speed up daily examinations. Our ultimate responsibility is excellent animal care while producing safe, wholesome food with no residues and documented proof of these accomplishments. Disease monitoring in the fresh pen is one of the most difficult jobs on the dairy. Ongoing training and supervision from your attending veterinarian is essential to achieve the best results from your fresh cow program.

Headlocks facilitate quick and safe daily examinations. Palpation rails can also work. Fresh cows must not be kept from feed and water for more than one hour at a time. To be an excellent diagnostician you must observe each cow from a distance, from in front, from behind and have a good stethoscope handy to diagnose lung and gut issues.

Cows are talking all the time…we must learn to listen. Walk the fresh pens daily when cows are resting. Use your eyes and nose. Walk slowly and quietly. Look at every cow. Use this information to identify those few cows that need close attention tomorrow to speed up the daily fresh cow checks.

In my experience the two most common fresh cow diseases are sub-clinical milk fever (MF) and metritis. A sub-clinical MF cow exhibits cold ears and slow rumen function, which can lead to ketosis, retained placentas (RP), displaced abomasums (DAs) and/or metritis. Oral calcium is an effective therapy. Liquid, paste or large-volume drenches work well. I get good results with calcium propionate in warm water.

Metritis is the most over-diagnosed fresh cow disease. A fever plus a noxious odor and a certain color identifies a true metritis. It can be moderate or toxic in severity. Once the immune system responds or an estrogen surge occurs, the discharge turns white. This is a good sign and indicates prostaglandins or no further treatment is necessary. Besides RPs, the primary causes of metritis are dirty fresh pens or dirty obstetrician techniques. Immune suppression caused by acidosis or stress can contribute to increased cases. Systemic antibiotics, IV or oral fluids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are reasonable therapeutic choices. Intrauterine antibiotics (IU) are controversial and must only be considered with approval of your attending veterinarian. IU therapy causes milk and meat residues.

Research states that a significant number of normal fresh cows experience elevated temperatures. Treating every fever without evaluating the entire animal will greatly overuse medicines and increase residue risks.

I n summary
• Very important – DO NO HARM!

• Use observational and diagnostics skills in addition to temperature to make treatment decisions.

• Balance between daily exams of each fresh cow and only checking “off” cows.

• A daily pen walk-through while animals are resting will yield a lot of usable information.

• When a treatment is chosen, be aggressive…a relapse is much more difficult to treat.

• Use your head, hands, eyes, ears and nose more and syringes less.

• Use what we all had to learn during 2009…when no one could afford to buy a lot of meds!

• There is not a perfect fresh cow program but there a lot of them working very well.

• Prudent drug usage must be at the center of all treatment decisions on the dairy farm.

• Our industry has no margin for errors regarding food residues or questionable animal care practices.

• A legitimate veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) must exist with your attending veterinarian. PD

A complete version of this presentation made at the 2010 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference can be found at

Roger Thomson
Team Management Concepts