Transition feeding for dairy cows

For obvious reasons, you wouldn’t start the rugby season without pre-season training. The same goes for cows - transition management is pre-season prep for dairy cows. 

The transition period begins four weeks before calving and continues until four weeks post calving. It’s a period of incredible hormonal, metabolic and physiological change as a cow moves through the late stages of gestation, gives birth to her calf and moves into lactation.

We need to cover all of the cow’s nutrient requirements to give the rumen, liver and mammary gland the capacity to deal with so much change. Then your herd will be well positioned to meet early peak milk solids output.

Impacts of poor management of the transition period

Failure to correctly manage the transition period can result in:

  • increased occurrence of clinical and sub-clinical milk fever
  • downturns in smooth muscle function
  • immune system suppression
  • reduced dry matter intake (DMI), leading to a prolonged negative energy balance
  • SARA (Sub Acute Ruminal Acidosis)
  • retained placenta, potential for metritis, etc.
  • excess body weight loss negatively impacting reproductive performance
  • reduced milk solids output.

Getting the mineral balance right

Combinations of high magnesium levels (>0.45%) and reduced ration DCAD (<+80 mEq/kg DM) have been shown to reduce clinical and sub-clinical milk fever in commercial dairy herds. This mineral combination allows cows to both absorb calcium from their ration and release some calcium from remodelled bone stores to maintain critical blood calcium levels. 

Negative energy balance

Some period of negative energy balance is inevitable, even in well managed dairy herds. This is mainly due to altered hormone balances and increased milk output occurring more rapidly than DMI increases.

The degree and duration of these periods of negative energy balance impact the number of days in milk before a cow starts cycling (first heat) and is a mechanism in determining the likely trend in milk production during lactation.

The severity of negative energy balance can be influenced by feeding practice. Aim for an average body condition score (BCS) of 5.0 at dry-off and maintain this throughout the dry period. This ensures cows have adequate body reserves to accommodate nutrient challenges in the first 30 days after calving.

Feed the same ingredients pre- and post-calving

Prioritise rumen adaptation by including as many of the feed ingredients in the ration pre-calving as she will receive post-calving, where they fit with total ration considerations. If you plan to feed cereal grains post calving, they should be included pre-calving in order for the bugs and papillae to go through adaptation before the demand for milk production comes.

Offer plenty of conserved forage that provides physically effective fibre (PEF) to maintain fibre-digesting bug populations and some stretch on the rumen. Rations low in PEF, in combination with reduced smooth muscle function can predispose cows to displaced abomasum.

Understanding energy requirements

Work out the energy requirements of your herd on both sides of the transition period. Ration components that increase the production of propionate in the rumen, or provide rumen escape starch, help to increase blood glucose concentrations. This positions your herd to meet energy requirements from ingested nutrient rather than dipping too deeply into body reserves. Never rely on excess body weight loss as a sustainable course of action.

Avoid “pinching up” cows in early lactation in order to make a surplus for harvest. Our first priority is to feed fresh cows optimally with a suitably balanced ration for their breed and level of milk solids output.

Avoid feed gaps

Always fill feed gaps for fresh cows and definitely don’t create one! Feed gaps are common in spring calving herds, particularly through the first and second rounds of grazing. If you cannot meet cow nutrient requirements with vegetative pasture on hand, you’ll need supplements. Don’t be afraid of taking a somewhat aggressive approach to feeding - fresh cows are well positioned to produce more milk solids with each kilogram of supplement they eat.

The role of feed supplements

Ingham can help by providing feeds specifically aimed at this transition period, delivering the energy, protein and minerals your herd needs to meet these challenges. We’ll help you fill any feed gaps, or maintain adequate nutrient intake if grazing is limited or of reduced quality.

The carbohydrate components of our TopCow rations, particularly starch, are a great precursor to increased blood glucose. The ensuing insulin response to blood glucose will aid in limiting the partitioning of adipose body tissue and may be further assisted by the inclusion of the trace element chromium.

Other carbohydrate sources will not offer the same metabolic responses and outcomes. In simpler terms, get it right and you will have fewer downer and ketotic cows.

Transition feeding is one of the great advances in dairy nutrition over the last 25 years. Calving does not have to be a time of year you loathe that leaves you utterly exhausted. There is a better way. Not only do you spare the hard slog, but the economic benefits pay for your inputs several times over. 

To find out more about transition feeding talk to your local Ingham Dairy Nutrition Specialist.

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