TUMBA, Sweden ―The oldest cow on record lived to be nearly 49 years old. Big Bertha, a cow from Ireland, is also known for having produced 39 calves over her lifetime.

No one expects you to keep your cows around that long ― even if you could. But it would be nice to keep the good ones longer if they stay healthy and productive.

“Long live the cows!” was a theme at last week’s Cow Longevity Conference sponsored by DeLaval.

One of the speakers, Ken Nordlund, clinical professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed a critical aspect of cow longevity ― the transition period three weeks before calving and three weeks after calving.

For years, Nordlund and others investigated the role of nutrition in explaining why some cows sail through the transition period, while others struggle. Yet, many farms had “exquisitely excellent” feeding systems and still had metabolic disorders among the cows, he pointed out. Over time, it became evident that housing issues related to feed intake were as important, if not more so, in explaining the differences.

A great ration can be fed, but if there are housing issues like overstocked pre-fresh pens, insufficient bunk space and inadequate bedding, “that great ration will not deliver great results,” he said.

Feed bunk access affects how much the cows eat, which affects fresh-cow diseases. In fact, sufficient space at the feeding fence for all transition cows to eat simultaneously appears to be the most important determinant of transition cow performance, Nordlund says. His recommendation is for a minimum of 30 inches of bunk space per Holstein cow in pre-fresh and post-fresh pens for a 90-minute period after fresh feed is delivered and after every milking.

“Stall surface, stall size, the number of pen moves and social adjustments that cows have to make also affect feed intake and therefore affect fresh-cow health.”

The transition period is when a large majority of adult cow disease events occur. If cows can get through this period OK, their chances of completing a successful lactation and then moving on to another greatly increases.