The transition period, traditionally three weeks before calving and three weeks following, can be a high-stress time in a dairy cow’s life. The environment, diet and pen changes, and poor management all can be detrimental to immune function as well as negatively impact the cow for generations to come.

So what is the solution to better managing these cows in such a critical time? Perhaps it depends on who you ask and what window they look out of. Sam Mosley, Ph.D.; and Carie Telgen, DVM, share their perspective and expertise on the topic as well as best practices. Both Telgen and Mosley have years of experience but slightly different angles. Mosley, a nutritionist by training, has years of on-farm large dairy management experience, while Telgen spent years of her career as a practicing veterinarian and is now a ruminant field tech specialist. Here’s what they had to say.

Thinking about things like bunk space, stocking density and calving area, what can we do to ensure the environment is well suited for transition cows?

Mosley: Stocking density drives a lot of this. You want to allow adequate room for each cow to avoid overcrowding. It’s recommended that each transition cow has 30 inches of bunk space. If you can, stock pens at around 100% of feedbunk space. There are times we will likely run higher than the ideal of 80% capacity, understanding we have to balance what is recommended with what is manageable.

When it comes to the calving area, maintain a clean, dry environment for cows to calve in. This helps prevent pathogens and bacteria from getting in. Typically, surfaces should be deep-bedded straw, sand or even rubber mats. What the surface is isn’t as critical as making sure you can keep it clean. I prefer individual calving pens, but bedded packs also work. Calf identification can be an issue with these sometimes, and if that’s important to the dairy, then this isn’t the way to go and an individual pen would work better.

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Telgen: As a veterinarian, I recommend a stocking density closer to 80%, especially for our close-up cows. At far-off dry, I would be more comfortable running at 100%. The other part to consider is if you are managing mixed parity or separate. How are you commingling? Are you commingling? When are you commingling? This is all going to affect both the far-off, the close-ups and some of your stocking density depending on the situation. If you’re going to be running at 100%, your feed pushups, the timing of feed and bunk management are far more important.

If you’re going to have slugs of calvings, you need to know how to adjust your management for that. Cows may need to be moved more frequently, or you might change some of your dry periods to be 45 days. It’s really about how you change management to deal with higher calving months and the stocking density at that time.

As far as the calving environment, remember: Cows are herd animals. There is newer research coming out of Denmark that shows cows like having other cows around during calving. If you have an area where they can go, such as a three-sided pen that is blocked, this is ideal. Often, with individual calving pens you may move her to a solo calving pen, but this may slow down her progression, resulting in higher calf mortality. Regardless, like Sam said, a calf has zero immunity once it hits the ground, so also it is critical the pens are surfaces that are clean or can be cleaned.

As far as commingling, ideally you want to keep first-calf heifers separated from older cows throughout. However, that’s not practical on a lot of farms. If you’re going to commingle, it’s best to commingle them as far-off from calving as possible. This is better than throwing a first-calf heifer into a mixed-parity fresh group. When any animal moves pens, it takes at least one week for social hierarchy to be established. Because of this, putting them in earlier is better so they can adapt.

Mosley: Carie makes a great point here, and I wanted to point out that the number I critically watch for is days in the close-up pen. They need to be in there for 21 days or more. If we take the stocking density example, I will give the cows more time in the pen rather than fewer to achieve a lower stocker density. My philosophy is, “How many strikes do you give them?” As Carie said, if you’re going to run at a higher capacity, then management of other areas becomes more critical.

What advice do you have for getting feeding protocols right, including mixing accuracy, delivery timing, etc.?

Mosley: Close-up cows may not be the highest priority; that is reality. Often, we see them fed toward the later part of the day. As things evolve on the farm, that time of day can vary greatly. Therefore, feeding time is very important and something I watch. We must be accurate on these diets, especially if you’re using products for acidification or lower- inclusion ingredients; you should have those well-mixed. When using acidified diets in close-up cows, one of the biggest challenges we see dairies struggling with is variability in urine pH. This is often attributed to poor mixing quality, which is why the diet needs to be mixed well and delivered on time.

Telgen: Cows crave consistency. It is imperative dairies work with their nutritionist and feeding team to ensure the ingredients, mixing and feeding times are as consistent as possible, and cows will benefit.

What can we do to encourage dry matter intake so cows reach their peak?

Telgen: We often see heavy straw in close-up diets or heavy forage diets that have some chopped straw in them. There’s a lot of art to nutrition. All of this will be based on what the farm has for inventory, what their goals are and what the nutritionist’s perspective is as well. But remember, you can have multiple types of feed and still be successful.

Mosley: Carie makes a good point when it comes to straw. We do see a lot of straw used in these diets. A typical rule of thumb is: Anything wider than the cow’s nose will be sorted. From a particle length standpoint, I would like to see straw particle size get down to that 1-inch range. Also, a lot of times we need to add a lot of water or liquid to these diets to hold it all together. Managing dry matter and particle size in these diets are the two key points.

Are there things we can add to the ration to help the transition cow manage all the changes we are throwing at them?

Telgen: The transition cow goes through multiple changes, all within two-and-a-half months. From diet changes, rejuvenating the udder, going to the close-up pen, the rapid growth of the calf and having the calf. All these transitions cause extreme physiological changes to the udder, uterus and GI tract, making the cow in constant flux. Because of this, incorporating an immune support postbiotic feed additive is a great option to help with inflammation and immunity in general.

Mosley: The prefresh and early postfresh period is when the cow is at its biggest risk. This would be the perfect time to put in an immune support postbiotic feed additive. We focus a lot on the close-up period, but we need to manage these cows all the way through. The far-off cows are often the forgotten ladies on the farm. If we screw those cows up, we won’t be able to fix it in 21 days before they calve. So you need to have sound management all the way from dry-off well into lactation. And incorporating an immune support feed additive in these diets can be extremely valuable.

Telgen: One last thing to note: Dry cows are often exposed to the worst conditions on the farm, whether it’s the worst stalls or air quality. However, they are one of the most important groups on the dairy to protect. We are now seeing research from Dr. Geoffrey Dahl out of the University of Florida that shows what you’re doing to a dry cow is going to affect the next two generations. He is seeing that it doesn’t matter how we manage those animals; we have impacted them for life. It is clear we need to put forth our best efforts to protect this group.

With all the discussion around transition cows, any advice once they do get to the fresh cow pen?

Telgen: We can’t forget about fresh cows. It’s just as critical to get good quality fresh feed in front of them. They’re transitioning to making milk again, they’re transitioning to another social change, another schedule change, and you cannot forget them just because she’s had a calf. They’re still critical cows on the farm that need attention. You must also think about the time budget of a fresh cow, which is also important. She needs all the rest she can get, and we shouldn’t be locking these cows up for hours to “manage” and “monitor” them. Her resting time should be top priority.

Mosley: One of the biggest issues we face when measuring the success of a transition cow program is the time lag in the variables measured (i.e., SCC, 60-day cull rate, peak milk and reproductive success). If we identify failures in the system using these types of indicators, it is likely that many cows are currently going through a failing system. We must identify indicators that tell us that current transition cows are on the right track. Consistency is such a huge part of this. It’s all about what you can measure and monitor. Figure out what these things are to make sure your program is successful now and not after the fact.

The most important thing to measure is dry matter intake. Then ask yourself, are we getting the right cows in the right pens at the right time? You also want to measure days in close-up and shoot for a target of at least 21 days. Ultimately, you’re looking for things the farm can monitor as events are going on. Then you make those needed changes and adjustments.   end mark

PHOTO: Staff photo.

Sam Mosley
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