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Managing and monitoring the health of transition dairy cows

Quick facts

Monitoring the transition dairy cow helps producers to recognize signs of trouble before it starts. 

  • The transition period is 60 days before calving and 30 days after calving.

  • Transition cow management influences health, production, pregnancy rate and longevity of your herd.

  • Negative energy balance occurs after calving when a cow is using more calories than she is eating.

  • Reducing the time spent in a negative energy balance by encouraging feed intake is the most important goal of transition cow management.

    The transition period

    The transition from late gestation to early lactation is challenging for both animals and dairy producers. Closely managing cows during this time is crucial to making sure transition goes smoothly.

    The term "transition" refers to the process of a cow not producing milk (dry cow), calving, and then producing milk. The transition period was traditionally the three weeks before calving and the three weeks following calving. As we learned more about cow physiology, this period expanded to the 60 days before calving and the 30 days following. These 90 days make up the transition period.

    Why the transition period matters

    Managing cows correctly during the transition period is one of the most important factors for overall farm success. The calorie needs of a milking cow are massive, especially compared to a dry cow.

    • Within the two days after a cow calves, the energy needs of that cow more than double.
    • The metabolic stress associated with the increased energy demand can be dramatic.
    • How the cow handles this stress and moves through the transition period influences her production, health, ability to become pregnant again and ability to remain in the herd. 

    During the transition period, nutrient requirements increase to support fetal growth and colostrum and milk production. Dairy cows are at greatest risk of developing diseases and conditions leading to involuntary culling during this time. Monitoring the transition dairy cow is important to recognize changes in performance.

    The establishment of a routine and a consistent system to collect, analyze and interpret herd records is essential to detect disruptions in performance.

    Calorie needs of the transition cow

    The main goal of transition cow management is to decrease the amount of time the cow spends in a negative energy balance. The more time a fresh cow spends in a negative energy balance, the higher the probability she will have a health challenge.

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    Detect problems early

    Monitoring during the transition period can be used to detect disruptions in performance under existing management conditions or measure the impact of an intervention or change in management. When used correctly, monitoring methods are very important to support management decisions and motivate management or employee behavioral change on a dairy farm.

    Monitoring guidelines

    Many approaches can be used to monitor the transition dairy cow, depending on farm goals. When establishing a monitoring routine at a dairy farm, choose parameters that are practical and useful to address the problems at hand.

    The ideal monitoring routine must:

    • Have a minimum delay between causes and effect (lag). 
    • Not mask any recent changes when using historical data (momentum). 
    • Detect differences across the population (variation). 
    • Not contain misleading information (bias).

    Unfortunately, it is not possible to achieve all these features using a single monitored parameter and a combination of parameters is often used to analyze the performance of transition dairy cows.

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    Joe Armstrong, Extension educator; Luciano Caixeta, College of Veterinary Medicine; Bobwealth Omontese, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

    Reviewed in 2019

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