Transitioning cows from the dry period into and through early lactation has a huge effect on the overall production and health of the entire herd. The way we house and manage the dry and pre-fresh cow ultimately determines the level of production she can achieve.

A good transition means reduced stress, reduced fresh-cow problems, improved production with a better start, a higher peak milk production and more persistent lactation curve. Added benefits would be a better breeding program, resulting in healthier cows, improved herd longevity and a lower cull rate.

With all these benefits, it would seem a “no-brainer” that proper housing would be a high-priority area on the dairy. However, if constructed correctly—using all the recommendations from your nutritionist, veterinarian and maybe even an engineer—these can be very expensive facilities on a per-stall or per-square-footage basis.

Rather than look at the cost per animal housed in the transition group, a better way to calculate cost is on a total-herd basis. For example, if only 20% of the total herd can be housed at any given time in this expensive facility, that cost may be $3,000 or $4,000 per animal to build based on capacity alone. However, that leaves 80% of the herd that still benefits by proper housing and management during transition to help pay for it. In other words, for every one cow housed at a time, there are four other cows in lactation also giving more milk because of the facility. So now what was a high cost is actually less than $1,000 per cow when computed across the entire herd and much easier to pay for considering production and health gains.

This is much different from when improvements are made in the lactating-cow housing, where only the one cow that uses that one stall can make the payments on that improvement. With transition-cow housing you are “paying it forward,” so to speak, and that investment lasts far beyond the end of this barn life.

The exact type of housing will depend on your management. There are lots of ways to put the transition-housing system together, as long as it meets a few “dairy shelter basics.” Those basics would be:

  • Good ventilation
  • A dry, comfortable resting area
  • Good access to feed
  • Good access to water
  • Confident footing.

The access to feed would be the No. 1 design consideration. Research has consistently shown that transition cows should have 30" of feed space. If you are considering free stalls, a two-row layout gives the best stall-to-feed-space ratio. As for stall size, remember these girls are carrying a calf and therefore are a little bigger than normal, so adding a few inches to the stall width is a good idea. Stall width of 51" to 54" is recommended, with a total stall length of at least 9'.

Bedded pack shelters are another option for transition housing. The bedded pack may have a comfort advantage because cows lie down and position themselves to be comfortable. Space and bedding, however, may be draw backs with a large number of animals. If considering the bedded pack, 100 to 120 sq. ft. of resting area per animal is recommended for dry cows, and 175 to 200 sq. ft. per cow are needed for a freshening pack.

Sometimes both the free-stall and bedded pack are combined into a transition shelter. Early stage dry cows are housed in free stalls and then are moved to the maternity group, where a large freshening pack is used for housing.

Regardless of the shelter type or style, sizing it for the proper number of animals is important. Calving rates never are even throughout the year, so it is recommended to oversize the shelter by 25% to 30% from predicted uniform calving.

Remember, the housing and management of transition cows has lasting effects on the entire herd, not just the animals housed here. The investment in more space and comfort for transition cows will pay dividends down the road throughout the entire dairy herd.