Fine-tuning transition care

Carole Curtis
New activity monitors can measure a cow's eating bouts and rumination, her milk yield and her actual activity on a daily basis. When her rumination drops off, the device provides a health alert.

Fort Atkinson - How a dairy handles a cow during her transition period has multiple effects on the financial success and stability of the business.

To increase profitability, dairy farms need to feed and manage dry and transition cows to minimize health disorders and maximize production and reproduction, Dr. Phil Cardoso, University of Illinois dairy scientist, said during a Hoard's Dairyman webinar co-hosted by Steve Larson, Hoard's Dairyman, and Dr. Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois.

The presentation was sponsored by Ajinomoto Heartland (

The transition period, meaning the three weeks prior to and three to four weeks following calving, is a time frame when most infectious diseases and metabolic disorders occur. The list of dangers runs from displaced abomasum and ketosis to lameness, mastitis, metritis and retained placentas.

The challenge is to handle transitioning cows in ways that preserve their health, bolster milk production and enhance reproduction rates. "We need to get cows pregnant as soon as possible if we want to have a profitable operation," Cardoso pointed out.

Dairy cows face a negative energy balance at the beginning of lactation. Milk production is the usual suspect, but Cardosa shared  research that suggests post calving energy balance is not correlated with (solids-corrected) milk yield at all.

"Milk or milk components don't seem to be related to the negative energy balance that's going to be causing all those diseases and disorders in cows," he said.

The issue is dry matter intake. "If we get cows, in the first three weeks, eating better, they are going to be less negative energy balance and that is pivotal," Cardosa emphasized.

Breaking it down

There are ten areas Cardosa considers vital for a successful transition. They include days in milk, body condition score, BHB, urine pH, the right diet,  cow comfort in terms of activity, cow comfort defined by hock score, fecal score, dairy efficiency and the number of cows culled before 60 days in milk.

If more than 8 percent of cows leave within sixty days of calving, he believes the dairy has opportunities for improvement.

Of the ten focus areas,  dairy producers who want to get the transition period right should start with days in milk, body condition score and the right diet.


Research shows that the type of diet a cow is eating before calving will impact what happens after calving.

Cows fed even moderate energy diets during the dry period easily over consumed energy relative to their requirements, but research shows that cows fed energy-controlled diets prepartum, either through restriction or higher amounts of straw, had better metabolic status postpartum.

"We believe that controlling that energy before calving is something important to achieve, rather than letting cows eat ad libitum moderate or high energy diets," he said.

In general, the dry matter intake for a close-up cow three weeks before calving should be above 33 pounds a day. If she is eating between 22 and 33 pounds, there is room for improvement, but anything  less than 10 pounds of intake should be viewed as a red light.


Body condition scores are a good tool for helping cows weather the transition period successfully. Make it simple for farm employments, he advised.

Research shows that cows that calve thin will, over the next 12 weeks, gain BCS, while a fat cow will lose BCS.

The challenge is to keep those changes in a cow's BCS at drying off, at calving and at breeding within 0.5. "I don't care too much if it's 3.5 or 3, what I care is that if it's a 3, it doesn't drop to  2, that it keeps within a half BSC," Cardosa said. "If you can have it at no more than 0.5, you are a champion and you have pretty nice management."

The importance of the change was highlighted by research  that measured the calving-to-pregnancy interval for cows that gained, maintained or lost body condition between calving and 21 days postpartum.

The data showed cows that gained BCS during the transition period got pregnant much faster."So you're going to have effects not just on metabolic disorders, but also in reproduction," he said.

The research also showed cows fed controlled energy diets (CED), compared to high energy diets, lost less BCS in the first six weeks and was reflected in cows getting pregnant sooner.

Diet is important

The third focus is the right diet. Cows can consume enough energy to meet requirements during the transition period from a variety of diets, Cardosa pointed out,  but be aware that dry cows will easily consume more energy than they require.

It's rather like a person eating a bacon-laden cheeseburger and two cookies or  a chicken breast, salad and fruit, he explained.

Turning a typical lactating cow diet into a more beneficial CED can be achieved by adding wheat straw, Cardosa said, and, often, water.

It's not just tossing straw out there. Don't let cows figure out how much straw they need and do feed a well-mixed total ration that ensures cows do not sort, which is a common management problem with feeding CED."We need to have that figured out — cows cannot sort the diet we are mixing," he said.

A pivotal point in feeding CED is metabolizable protein, which should be to 1,000 grams/day, Cardosa said.

He advised dairy farmers to promote high dry matter intake immediately after calving and manage dietary and body energy. Aim for a moderate BCS of around 2.75 and do meet prepartum energy requirements, but do not allow excessive energy intake.

It is also important to feed rumen-protected methionine for increased methionine concentration in serum and follicular fluid in dairy cows.

A cow's pregnancy success starts in the transition phase, Cardosa explained. Research suggests amino acid balancing (methionine) from pre-fresh to confirmed pregnancy may not only improve milk production and composition, it may also improve embryo quality and reduce early embryo losses.

"We firmly believe that methionine is not just for protein. That is in the past," he said. "We now believe methionine is a required nutrient. The pregnancy success has been shown."

Cardosa encouraged dairy farmers to focus on the full ten steps for a successful transition period and urged them to visit Hoard's Dairyman webinar archives for more information. "If you get a handle on these ten steps on your farm, you are on target to be really successful," he said.