The 90-day transition period is critical to the future health and profitability of your cows. There is a huge investment at stake, and ignoring cows during this period could mean missing warning signs that lead to problems.

Transition period diseases are often the symptom of missed management opportunities. We become complacent, accept high levels of disease incidence, and fail to recognize the high cost this brings to the bottom line. Often, the damage is already done by the time we recognize what is happening.

While most of the symptoms occur in the last 30 days, the entire period is a risk. There are four main segments of the transition period requiring extra attention.

Use far-off time for prevention

When a cow goes dry about 50-60 days prior to freshening, she should be at her ideal body weight, with a body condition score (BCS) of 3.5-3.75. The weeks leading up to dry-off are a good time to record the BCS, confirm her pregnancy status and evaluate her somatic cell count records to identify any subclinical mastitis issues. This is the time to culture and treat problem cows, determine the correct dry cow therapy, administer dry treatments and teat sealants, and give any required vaccines.

It’s a good idea to dry a group of cows off together, moving them to a clean, dry, spacious pen. Large, comfortable free-stalls provide good housing during the dry period. 

Observe these cows daily. Nutrition is an important factor: Cows must maintain weight, but shouldn’t gain weight during the dry period. Weight gain will lead to problems as they head back to the milking string.

Pre-fresh pen should provide comfort

Three weeks prior to calving the cow should be moved with a group to a pre-fresh pen. This pen should be clean, dry and spacious (150 sq. ft/cow) and allow plenty of access to fresh feed and water. When possible, move a group of cows together to eliminate stress to a lone cow.

This is another opportunity to give any additional vaccines, and to visually assess body condition and udder health. Daily monitoring of feed consumption is important; consistent dry matter intakes are crucial to preventing problems later.

Freshening is best done by cows, alone

A cow’s time spent in the maternity pen should be as short as needed to deliver and dry her calf, but the cow needs her space and adequate time to go through labor and delivery. Close observation during calving time is necessary.

The healthiest cows and calves are the ones allowed to deliver on their own. We often err on the side of providing too much early assistance. Training is needed to learn the proper stages of labor, identifying when assistance is needed for delivery.

Group post-fresh cows together

As soon as the cow has cleaned and dried her calf, and prior to the calf nursing the cow, she should be moved to the post-fresh milking cow group. It is not good to place fresh cows in with mid-lactation cows. Depending on herd size, keeping fresh heifers and cows separate is ideal. Daily observation for any early signs of transition diseases is mandatory. A well-trained dairy manager able to spot incidences early is very valuable. 

By following these few basic management tactics, cows should transition through the 90 days with few problems. But if it’s so basic, why do we have so many transition cow problems?

Many times we are so focused on the symptoms that we miss the simple solutions. Ask your veterinarian to help with a risk assessment, looking for your operation’s bottlenecks. There are several commercial programs to help to identify issues before they become problems. Two I use include a program from Zoetis, the Transition Cow Management Report, utilizing objective measures from your monthly records to rate your transition program performance. Another program from Elanco, Vital 90TM Analyzer, is a risk assessment tool that allows you and your veterinarian to enter farm information into a web-based analytical tool. This program generates an immediate report, identifying the top three transition period areas of concern.

There are other commercial programs, and the list is growing. Use a program both you and your veterinarian are comfortable with, and can manage.

It is often the things we walk by every day and accept as normal that are the basis for many of our problems. Take time to examine your transition period management. Do not accept 30%-50% incidence of cows with displaced abomasums, ketosis, milk fevers, retained placentas, metritis, dystocia, or worse, a cow leaving the herd prematurely.

Walk through your transition cows with your veterinarian and ask for a diagnostic program to identify problems. Follow through with recommended changes, and monitor the results. Do not accept mediocrity when excellence is just around the corner.

Mel Wenger is a veterinarian and owner of Orrville Veterinary Clinic, Inc., a seven-doctor mixed animal practice in Orrville, Ohio.