Four Keys to Successful Transitions
Many dairies have conquered clinical metabolic issues at calving. But if you stop there you leave money on the table. Most dairies still have opportunity to reduce subclinical hypocalcemia and subclinical ketosis. Reducing subclinical issues will result in more milk and better reproduction.
Recent research has improved our understanding of the transition period, of rumen function and of the negative effects of subclinical disease. Results show that focusing on the transition period—three weeks prior to and following calving—improves milk production and reproductive performance.
“I tell producers that once the calf hits the ground, the cow is ready to make milk; but we have to give her the nutrients to do so,” explains Mary Beth de Ondarza, Paradox Nutrition, West Chazy, N.Y. After calving, cows’ dry matter intake is reduced and fluctuates. The goal must be to get enough nutrients into her safely, maintain rumen fill with adequate effective fiber and keep her healthy.
To accomplish that goal, de Ondarza recommends focusing on four key areas: 1. Cow comfort and management; 2. Subclinical hypocalcemia; 3. Subclinical ketosis; and 4. Metabolizable protein and amino acids. Research has shown that each can negatively impact transition cows. Getting these four things right removes the impediments that prevent cows from having a successful transition, improves milk production and reproduction.
Where to Start
Often, de Ondarza can address all four key areas at once to reduce subclinical issues on dairies. But, “I would probably put cow comfort and management at the top of the list with subclinical hypocalcemia as a close second in order of importance,” she says. It’s about evaluating each dairy individually to determine which of these areas is the most limiting for transition success and then making little tweaks and measuring results.
Due to hormonal changes and gut capacity issues, dry matter intake naturally declines somewhat before calving (Bertics et al., 1992). But stress from competition at the bunk and for stalls, and environmental stress can all decrease DMI further before calving. Stress also can change how cows partition available nutrients and increase fat mobilization. Stressors can accumulate as a precursor to metabolic dysfunction. Other common stressors include: Mixing first-calf heifers with older cows; > 1 hour/day in headlocks; > two pen moves during the transition period and uncomfortable stalls. To overcome these stressors de Ondarza recommends the following for pre-fresh cow management:
- Don’t crowd. DMI starts to decline when stocking density exceeds 80%.
- Provide a minimum of 30 inches of feedbunk space per cow.
- New research recommends 140-150 sq. ft. of resting space/cow (Grant 2017).
- Clean stalls/pens every 2 to 4 days.
- Check pre-fresh cows hourly and move at the point of calving to a separate pen.
- Once a cow is up after calving, move her to a fresh-cow pen.
Decreased DMI before calving has been linked to increased risk for subclinical ketosis (Goldhawk et al., 2009) and increased risk for metritis (Huzzey et al., 2007). A study by Bertics et al., 1992, showed that just getting cows to eat more can improve transition success.
“I am convinced that good cow comfort and management will make up for inadequacies of the diet,” she says. Unfortunately, sometimes cow comfort and management can’t be improved without investing in new facilities. In that situation, investing more in nutrition can help make up for shortfalls in cow comfort and improve cows’ transition.
A good pre-fresh diet should keep cows eating, maintain rumen fill and provide adequate effective fiber. In addition, it should provide enough metabolizable protein (MP) to meet fetal growth and the needs of the cow. Aim for 1,300 g/d of MP in the pre-fresh diet.
Provide adequate energy to reduce fat mobilization and subclinical ketosis; about 1.4 to 1.5 Mcal NEL/kg DM. Feed low potassium forages. To improve calcium regulation keep dietary potassium at <1.3%, sodium at <0.15% and raise magnesium to 0.4%. Add a palatable anionic supplement to induce metabolic acidosis for increased sensitivity to the parathyroid hormone and better calcium response. The pre-fresh diet should also include additives such as yeast, choline, niacin and vitamin E.
A good pre-fresh diet will help minimize the incidence of subclinical hypocalcemia which has been linked to ketosis, retained placentas, displaced abomasums and infections.
THE FRESH COW DIET
Proper diet during the first three weeks of lactation is critical. According to de Ondarza a fresh-cow diet should: provide nutrients to rapidly increase milk yield and dry matter intake, reduce health problems, reduce subclinical ketosis by promoting DMI and propionate production, control but not eliminate negative energy balance and prepare cows for conception.
Some dairies prefer to feed the high-group TMR to fresh cows, too. While that can work, de Ondarza prefers to make a couple of tweaks to the high-group TMR for just-fresh cows. The first is to add 2-3 lbs. of high-quality chopped hay. And since high nutrient demand combined with lower feed intakes can lead to subclinical ketosis, she also adds yeast, calcium propionate and rumen-protected choline. She aims for 12-14% MP and a lysine to methionine ratio of 2.7:1.
“Generally dairy producers understand the need to ‘baby’ the fresh cows a bit,” she says. “It makes sense to put the more expensive additives into the just-fresh cows in order to give them a good start on their lactation and prevent fresh cow problems down the road such as DAs and ketosis.”
When it comes to metabolic issues during transition, less is always better. “I know some farms that have a goal of producing 100 lbs./day at 10 days in milk (DIM). To me, that indicates real transition success,” says de Ondarza. All producers can use 10 DIM as a benchmark. Evaluate your transition program for these four areas, make improvements and then reevaluate milk production at 10 DIM. You may be surprised. The same is true for reproduction. Select criteria to monitor and then work to improve.
Investing in the transition period is an investment in the cows’ next lactation and longevity in the herd. More milk and better reproductive performance are always welcome.
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