Strong transition requires more than a great ration
You have many options to choose from when it comes to feeding dry cows. You may favor a single dry cow group over a two-group system, feed anionic salts and high or low calcium, or incorporate high levels of straw.
Regardless of how dry cows are fed, all herds will have to manage challenges during the transition period. To limit the occurrence of these transition issues, management of pre- and post-fresh animals is essential. Body condition score (BCS), hoof health and stocking density are a few key management tools every producer should use to reduce the risk of transition disorders.
Body condition score
BCS is a great visual predictor of transition success. Fat cows have a higher rate of dystocia, a greater decrease in duration and intensity of dry matter intake (DMI), and a higher rate of adipose tissue mobilization (a precursor to ketosis and fatty liver) around the time of calving. If you wait to do something about dry cow BCS until three weeks before expected calving, you’ve waited too long.
Late-lactation cows require less-energy-dense feed compared to early- to mid-lactation cows, and an energy-reduced ration should be considered to prevent over-conditioning. Managing BCS will become even more crucial as more herds become bST-free. Energy will no longer be set aside for milk production in late lactation. As a result, cows will be at greater risk of drying off with too much conditioning. Aim for a BCS of 3.25 to 3.5 at dry off.
Lame cows have reduced intakes and higher adipose tissue mobilization to support milk production. This greatly reduces the chances of a successful transition period and predisposes lame cows to ketosis and a greater risk of displaced abomasum throughout lactation. For these reasons and more, hoof health is important 365 days of the year.
Prevention of lameness can be done with proper and timely hoof trimming, as well as regular footbaths throughout the dry period. Current recommendations are to trim at dry off, using this time to do any necessary hoof remodeling, and trimming again at 90 to 120 days in milk. Try to limit fresh cow trimmings whenever possible as hoof trimming increases time away from the bunk and stress. Footbaths are used multiple times each week to strengthen the hoof wall and aid in the prevention of hoof lesions for lactating cows, but do not forget about the dry cows. They are just as prone to hoof lesions and should go through the footbath at least once a week if not more.
Stocking density is a reflection of the number of animals relative to bunk space. DMI decreases as stocking density increases. You should aim for at least 30 inches of bunk space per dry cow to maintain DMI – one of the most important factors in a successful transition.
Stocking density and social standing within the herd directly impact feed intake and, by extension, energy balance in dry cows. Dominant animals monopolize the bunk, leading to limited access to fresh feed for subordinate animals. The potentially less palatable and presorted feed restricts energy intake in the subordinate animals and increases their risk of entering a negative energy balance in the prefresh period, thus predisposing this group to ketosis.
With successful monitoring of your herd’s BCS, hoof health, and stocking density, combined with a proper feeding program, you’ll create greater transition success for your herd.
About the author: Dr. Nicole Barkley is a Vita Plus dairy nutritionist serving central and western Wisconsin. Barkley grew up in Alaska and was actively involved with fisheries. She shifted her focus to agriculture during her undergraduate career at the University of Idaho, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science. She went on to earn her master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in animal science with emphasis on reproductive and nutrition physiology. Barkley has worked for Vita Plus since February 2014.
Transition and reproduction