Freeport Veterinary Service

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Successful Transitions

                               Written by: Lee Michels, DVM

It’s early in the morning and on the way to the bathroom you stub your toe on the corner of the door frame.  You cringe in pain as you try to keep from falling down.  Five minutes later you pour your first cup of coffee and take a sip to soon burning your mouth.  On the way to the barn you contemplate how well today is going to go given the rough start.  When you get to the barn you find one of your best fresh cows looks dull and hasn't eaten all night.  

My purpose of this story above is that small negative events during the dry period can lead to problems after freshening such as metritis, ketosis, fatty liver, and displaced abomasum.

The transition period for dairy cows has long been considered to be from 21 days pre -calving to 21 days in milk.  A more appropriate range to consider may be the entire dry period (~60 days) and the first month (~30 days) after calving because, for example, a cow that is fat going into her dry period is likely to be fat at calving and we also implement many management practices (vaccines, etc) during the 60 day dry period.   

What you can do to ensure a successful transition...

Appropriate Body Condition Score at calving  Transition cows that are over conditioned (BCS equal to or greater than 4.0) eat less before and after calving, with feed intake dropping sooner and to a greater extent before calving than optimally body conditioned pre-fresh cows. As a result, these cows mobilize body fat to a greater extent which causes excessive fat to accumulate in the liver.  When the liver is plugged with fat it compromises the liver’s ability to make glucose to support milk production. Thus, these cows have a higher likelihood of developing fatty liver and then subclinical or clinical ketosis in addition to other metabolic disorders such as displaced abomasum.  Oftentimes, these over conditioned cows were cows that experienced long days in milk due to reproductive problems during the previous lactation.  

Bunk Space and Dry Matter Intake pre and fresh  Adequate bunk space is critical for the pre-fresh and the postfresh cow to consume the maximum amount of dry matter.  A benchmark for feed bunk space is 30 inches per cow when headlocks are used and even more when a feed rail is used due to dominant cows taking up more space.  Depending on your facilities ( i.e. tiestall) you may not have to be concerned about bunk space after calving but don’t forget that the pre-fresh period is just as important.  Feed intake of most cows decreases by 10% to 30% in the 10 days prior to calving and slowly increases after calving.  The key is the degree of suppressed intake and therefore the extent of fat mobilization to maintain adequate energy.  Research now shows that keeping the transition cow eating is more important than the ration itself as a determinant of her post partum health. Reducing stressors that can further depress the appetite of a cow already in negative energy balance - such as pen moves and overcrowding - is important to keep her eating.

Minimize pen moves Each pen move requires that a cow familiarize herself with the surroundings, as well as re -establish a pecking order within the group.  More recent research has shown reduced time spent eating, increased feed evictions, and reduced milk yield following a pen move.  Minimizing the number of regroupings through the transition period is consistent with successful transition programs. In most situations, steps to reduce any moves will result in improved transition performance.  In an ideal situation, close up pens would not have cows added daily or even weekly to prevent cows from having to re-establish a pecking order.   

Effective and Efficient screening program  Fresh cows need to be evaluated on a daily basis.  Primary evaluation should include appetite assessment with or without ketosis monitoring.  Secondary evaluation would include rectal temperature, observations for vaginal discharge, ketosis, displaced abomasum, lung sounds, etc.  The primary determinant of the fresh cow screening and treatment program is the quality of the people and how much they care for the cows. Facilities that allow easy restraint without exciting the cows is also critical to these programs. 


Freeport Veterinary Service offers customized consultation service for transition cow health/performance.  Services include implementing dry cow programs and fresh cow screening programs.