The transition period of 30 days before calving to 70 days after calving is a critical time for the cow. Mistakes during this time can jeopardize her entire lactation and affect how long she ultimately stays on the dairy. That’s why it’s important to periodically review the way you manage these cows.

Here is a list of things that you and your veterinarian should assess. Some of these items are easier to implement than others, but all will result in healthier cows and improved productivity.

  • Dry matter intake. DMI drives so many factors. Our goal should be to have an optimum ration in front of a transition cow 24 hours a day, but many dairies feed these groups once a day. How fresh or available can her diet be on this feeding schedule? Increased frequency of feeding is shown to improve intakes in our lactating cows, so we should manage our transition groups the same way.
  • Groupings. Cows are social animals that establish levels of dominance within their group. Keeping first-calf heifers and smaller cows separate from older, larger cows will help improve intakes of these animals. Maintain this separate grouping after freshening, and even in your early-lactation groups, if possible.
  • Headlocks. While headlocks do allow for an easier opportunity to vaccinate or treat these animals, they can deter intake in some animals. When animals are reluctant to use headlocks, they may only consume a fraction of the calculated ration. Consider removing some of the headlocks or replacing them with cable lines to help resolve this problem during the critical transition period.
  • DCAD. If you feed an anionic ration, do you monitor its effectiveness?  Routine urine sampling is time-consuming, but it is a relatively easy and accurate way to check your ration. Our goal is to have at least 90 percent of the cows in this group with a urine pH of 6.5 or less, with 6.0 as an optimum level in Holsteins. (It is often easier to achieve acidity in Jerseys and in crossbreeds.) If your levels are consistently below 6.0, you can reduce the amount of anionic salts in the ration and save some money.
  • Cow comfort. Many farms use free-stalls or barns with a bedded pack for transition cows. If free-stalls are used, they should be wider than those used for the main milking herd; I recommend an additional 4 inches in width. The bedded pack should be dry with adequate cushion, and removed routinely to eliminate organic matter.
  • Stocking rates. Most farms are guilty of overstocking these areas during certain times of the year — especially those on a seasonal-calving schedule. Current recommendations call for 200 to 300 square feet per cow in a bedded pack and one stall per cow in free-stalls. Fans are also vital here for heat-abatement and ventilation. In packed bedding without good ventilation, ammonia levels can increase, resulting in respiratory problems or reduced appetites. Overstocking negatively impacts cow comfort. The results can be seen in reduced intakes and subsequent health problems post-calving.
  • Special-needs cows. All cows with any calving difficulty should be identified and receive additional care. Cows with uterine problems are often considered “broken” and thought to never perform reproductively as “normal cows,” but you can minimize these negative effects with prompt, effective care. 

Supplemental calcium and oral fluids can be beneficial. Oxytocin in small doses four times daily for the first four or five days after calving will help uterine involution. Studies have shown that the use of prostaglandins as early as day seven or eight post-calving can be effective in cows with a history of retained placenta or metritis, since their natural prostaglandin levels are lower at this time than cows without an abnormal uterine history. Repeating prostaglandins two weeks later can improve uterine involution also.

Monitor infections by daily or periodic rectal temperatures and promptly treat with systemic antibiotics. Time should be taken in this group to observe intakes and attitude daily. Cows that are off feed or look depressed should be examined and treated immediately. 

Jim Brett recently joined the faculty at Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He formerly practiced in Montezuma, Ga.