Transition: Think Like a Heifer – Pat Hoffman, Vita Plus

Posted on June 20, 2017 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Pat Hoffman, Vita Plus dairy technical specialist
It’s easy to get lost in the details of ration formulation and calving protocols when preparing dairy heifers for their first lactation, but these are not the only important aspects of a successful heifer transition program.

Of course, we can’t know exactly what a transition dairy heifer thinks, but perhaps it would be valuable to consider the things she might have on her mind:

Where is the water?  What is this feed?  Who are you?  How did I get here?  

While it may seem silly to try and think like a transition heifer, research seems to suggest simple rations and good management – dosed with a bit of “heifer thinking” – is the best approach to creating a good transition.

Dairy heifers have never seen and are not familiar with most of the transition housing systems they enter.  They also have never been exposed to the older cows.  These are undeniable truths.  Let’s consider how they might affect transition heifers’ health and performance.

Immune function
Research gives us clues that a heifer’s immune system needs time to adapt during the transition period.  It is well documented that first-lactation cows have a greater prevalence of mastitis immediately after calving than older cows, yet first-lactation cows have lower incidence of mastitis later in lactation.

Likewise, transition dairy heifers often have a much greater incidence of udder edema than older cows.  Past theories suggested this was due to factors like dietary salt intake.  Researchers now theorize it’s more likely caused by stress and immune response.  This all seems to suggest that the immune system of transition dairy heifers is fragile and needs extra time to adapt.

Diet formulation
In most cases, a dairy heifer has consumed an all-forage diet for the last year of her rearing period.  So, do we move her prior to calving and offer her a pre-fresh diet high in grain or corn silage?

Most research suggests feeding a moderate-energy diet, similar to her rearing diet, improves the transition.  In general, feeding heifers higher-energy diets pre-partum has not been shown to improve milk yield or postpartum feed intake.  It also does not decrease the effects of negative energy balance.  In fact, some studies suggest feeding transition heifers a high-energy diet pre-calving makes metabolic challenges worse post-calving.

Now the tricky part.

Transition heifers are commonly commingled with the older cows prior to calving and receive the same general management and diet that often favor the older cows in the group.  For example, the heifers in a transition group are less susceptible to milk fever and ketosis, yet they may be fed a diet containing anionic salts or choline.  What can we do?

Think like a heifer.

I have never seen this place before.  Who are all these other cows?  I’m more susceptible to postpartum mastitis and udder edema.  Give me more time to transition and PLEASE don’t overcrowd me. 

Following these simple steps of offering time to transition, nutritional consistency, and ample space are the best management strategies we have for transition heifers as they enter a very different environment and stage of life.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care
Transition and reproduction