How farmers and advisers are failing transition cows

Pre-calving cows don’t have adequate room in cubicle housing and one in five is lame (score two or above).

These were just two of the concerning findings from a recent PhD study into transition cow management by Harper Adams student Emma Redfern.

Mrs Redfern carried out 56 interviews with farmers, vets, and nutritionists in the Midlands last year to establish the main challenges that occurred during late pregnancy and early lactation.

See also: 6 fresh cow checks to prevent problems after calving

She also carried out 22 farm audits on year-round calving herds that were housed, focusing on transition cow accommodation, lameness, body condition, and had rations analysed to assess nutrients and mineral content.

Results highlighted some alarming concerns:

  • Where pre-calving cows were kept in cubicles, the cubicles were too small: the length was 1.8m rather than a minimum of 1.85-2m; the width was 1.1m instead of the recommended 1.22-1.37m; and the lunging space was 0.6m instead of 0.7m. “Pre-calving cows are not a priority like milking cows. They are sometimes put in outdated or inadequate housing, and where cows are kept in cubicles, they are too small,” says Mrs Redfern
  • One in five pre-calving cows had a mobility score of two (impaired mobility) and above
  • There was an acceptance of over-conditioned dry cows among farmers
  • All minerals, apart from magnesium and selenium, were oversupplied in pre-calving diets (see “Mineral levels being fed on year-round calving farms”, below)
  • Magnesium didn’t meet recommendations in more than half of diets and selenium was deficient in 86% of rations
  • Many farmers did not record body condition score (BCS) or metabolic diseases and struggled to associate metabolic disease with poor pre-calving management. This was due to the six-week time lapse during the transition period between poor decisions being made and cows getting sick in early lactation
  • Most feed reps were reluctant to give advice on the transition period because they didn’t feel confident, and from a commercial point of view it wasn’t as worthwhile as selling feed for milking cows
  • By comparison, independent nutritionists didn’t shy away from transition management
  • Block-calving herds had fewer transition problems compared with year-round calving herds because cows produced less milk and were under less metabolic stress
  • Block-calving farmers’ top priority was to keep things simple and low cost
  • Farmers with year-round calving herds used advisers/vets more than block calvers, who only used them when they needed them.

Mineral levels being fed on year-round calving farms


Recommended level to be fed

Average being fed



3.5g/kg DM

3.42g/kg DM

1-6.27g/kg DM


0.3mg/kg DM

0.09mg/kg DM

0-0.89mg/kg DM


12-18mg/kg DM

20.8mg/kg DM

One farm exceeded the maximum permitted value two-fold, and another was found to be feeding 79.3mg to fresh cows


Less than 5g/kg DM

5.66g/kg DM

3.15-10.1g/kg DM


Less than 11g/kg DM

13.9g/kg DM

In some instances, more than 24g was being fed. Range 5.89-24.1g/kg DM

Based on mineral analysis on 22 year-round calving farms

Nutrition repercussions 

Mrs Redfern says calcium, magnesium, and potassium are all interlinked and can create huge issues with milk fever if not fed at the correct rates.

“Calcium and potassium exceeded recommendations, but I could see that coming because a lot of forages are high in those. But from a milk fever point of view, it’s a total disaster,” explains Mrs Redfern.

She adds: “You don’t want to provide a lot of calcium pre-calving because you want to stimulate the cow to produce calcium on her own, from her bones.

“Potassium carries a positive charge. The higher the potassium in forage, the higher the dietary cation-anion difference [decab] value is going to be.

“[Potassium is] a nightmare for cows in two ways: it stops magnesium from being absorbed and, [because magnesium] is responsible for producing an enzyme in the kidneys to help cows mobilise calcium, if there isn’t enough magnesium in the ration, cows will struggle to regulate calcium.”

Twelve out of 22 farms did not meet the recommend pre-calver dietary magnesium concentration.

Another fundamental trace mineral that was undersupplied was selenium, which is important for calf development and immunity during pregnancy when cows are immunosuppressed.

One farmer was “triple-dosing” minerals – he would feed the same level regardless of the transition group size, says Mrs Redfern. At £1,000/t, she suggests it is something most farmers can ill afford to do.

“It’s not all down to the farmers though. One farmer’s feed rep had told him to feed a pre-calver roll and top dress with a mineral. There are many reasons these things are happening,” she adds.

‘Bad becomes normal’ 

Milk fever and mastitis were recognised as issues much more than metabolic diseases, such as ketosis and metritis, by the farmers interviewed.

This, Mrs Redfern suggests, is because farmers have to treat these problems and mastitis incurs milk contract penalties, unlike metabolic disease, which can be “invisible” to the eye unless post-calving checks are being carried out.

“By virtue of being able to treat these things themselves without vet intervention, there is a level of acceptance,” she adds.

Most farmers interviewed weren’t carrying out fresh cow checks, but those that did were more engaged with their vet and had milk fever under control, explains Mrs Redfern.

Many of these more engaged farmers were on aligned contracts, she adds.

Mrs Redfern has now made several recommendations to improve transition cow health on farm (see “Factors that must change to improve transition cow management”).  

Factors that must change to improve transition cow management

  • Farmers calving year-round would benefit from joining discussion groups, like block-calving farmers, to benchmark performance to identify where they can improve
  • Regular fresh cow checks should be performed after calving and staff should be engaged in this process to promote wider team discussion
  • The dairy industry must provide transition nutritionists such as calf and youngstock specialists to fill this important gap
  • Co-ordinated discussion between vets and feed advisers is needed
  • Renewed emphasis must be placed on transition cow housing to improve space requirements
  • Ways must be found to motivate farmers on non-aligned milk contracts to record transition health issues, body condition and mobility score cows.