A smooth transition

Posted on September 11, 2015 in Dairy Performance
By Sarah Fraley
The transition period for a dairy cow is often considered her most stressful time in the course of her lactation. Typically defined as the three weeks prior to the three weeks after calving, the transition period consists of rapid changes in the cow’s metabolic needs as well as many physiological changes associated with calving. How she adjusts to these changes will ultimately determine a cow’s future milking potential throughout that lactation.

As many producers are well aware, transition cow diseases cost thousands of dollars each year in vet bills as well as lost production and overall cow efficiency. Therefore, it is in our best interest to help these cows make as successful a transition as possible. Keep the following factors in mind as you determine the transition cow protocols for your farm.

Bunk space and overstocking
One of the most important things you can do to help your cows achieve a successful transition period is ensuring adequate bunk space in your transition pen. The high rate of increase in metabolic needs for a transition cow means she needs to have every opportunity to eat that she can. Dr. Ken Nordlund, University of Wisconsin-Madison, recommends a minimum of 30 inches of bunk space per animal in the pre-fresh pen.  Overstocking can also be a major contributor to a poor transition period.

Other facility considerations
Along with stocking density, stall dimensions and overall management tend to play a large role in how successful a transition period will be. If freestalls are used, stalls need to be built to accommodate the larger size of the pregnant cow.  The typical Holstein requires a stall at least 50 inches wide by 70 inches long. Bedded packs should be sized to have enough space for your largest flux of calvings in a single year and have enough space for at least 45 square feet per cow. Stalls or bedded packs should be cleaned on a regular basis and bedded with soft, comfortable bedding. Sand is the preferred bedding when using freestalls and, if a bedded pack is used, deep, clean bedding is essential.

Cow behavior
Also consider cow behavior when planning your transition cow protocols. Cows are social animals and, when new animals are added to a group setting, the adjustment in the pecking order within the group can often lead to social stress for most cows.  Stressed cows often eat less and are more susceptible to disease. The fewer number of pen moves you can put a cow through – especially during this critical period – will be beneficial to reducing stress.

Records and management
Lastly, keep good records and intentionally monitor your transition cows to help make a transition period successful. Early detection of symptoms for transition cow diseases will often lead to less out-of-pocket expense and give the cow an opportunity to bounce back from any challenges she might face. Good employees that understand the importance of the transition period can also make or break the success for those transition cows.

The transition period is probably one of the most stressful time periods for a dairy cow and many factors contribute to her success or failure. Finding out what works for your particular dairy is crucial to developing your transition cow protocols. Anything we can do to help our cows get through this period successfully will ultimately result in healthier, more profitable animals, as well as a healthier bottom line for you.

About the author:  Sarah Fraley is a dairy specialist with Vita Plus Gagetown.  She grew up in Michigan and attended Michigan State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in animal science in 2011.  She continued her education at Purdue University to earn a master’s degree in animal science with a concentration on dairy cattle nutrition.  While there, she assisted with research studies on condensed distillers solubles and dietary potassium carbonate in in lactating cow diets.  Fraley is a member of the American Dairy Science Association and the American Society of Animal Science.

Category: Cow comfort
Dairy Performance
Facility design
Transition and reproduction