Get the detail right with transition cow management

Lives are won and lost in the transition yard and calving pen, says Dorset dairy producer Stuart Rogers.

Such is his belief that even at the kitchen table he still has his fingers on the pulse of everything happening in the transition shed, with an app on his smart phone transmitting live images from the yard.

The CowCam not only saves a few late-night trips to check on close-to-calving animals, but also ensures cows spend minimal time in the calving pen and have everything they need as soon as possible.

“The calving pen is a pen of continued social turmoil,” says Mr Rogers, who is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall and farms 200 pedigree Holsteins with his father Colin.

“The aim is to have nothing in the calving pen for longer than 24 hours. Calving is the most stressful thing a cow can go through, so you want to make it as comfortable as possible.”

Fresh calvers

Every fresh-calved heifer and some cows which have a difficult calving at Longmoor Farm, Gillingham, receive 40 litres of warm water and a wheel barrow of the “highs” ration immediately after calving.

“We realised a few years ago that heifers tend not to drink in the run-up to calving,” explains Mr Rogers. “The key is to fill the rumen and fill the space the calf has left with water to prevent any displaced abomasums. It’s amazing how much they drink.”

Such attention to detail may sound like a job for several men, but the setup at Longmoor Holsteins ensures all freshly-calved cows can be handled by one person. A cold water tap in the fresh pen means hot water buckets brought over from the parlour can be topped up and the pen has been designed so cows can be easily dealt with.

Stuart Roger’s top tips on transition cow management
  • Monitor body condition scores
  • Maximise intakes by ensuring cows receive the best quality forages
  • Reduce group changes and stress through dry period
  • Discipline and attention to detail at calving
  • Carry out fresh cow checks and follow protocols;

“It’s all set up to make life easier. We have an adapted calving gate, flood light and a hinged bar we can hang a calcium bag on if we have a case of milk fever.”

Cows are moved into the “high” group about six hours after calving and receive fresh cow checks weekly, which Mr Rogers carries out with his vet wife Helen. “The auto-segregation and handling system here makes it easy to check cows,” says Mr Rogers.

“We temperature check every week and everything over 39.5C then undergoes vaginal checks for cleansings or signs of metritis, and is pumped with warm water and ketol. If they’re dirty they get antibiotics, or anti-inflammatories in extreme cases.”

To reduce stress in these fresh calvers, the Stuarts also removed a row of cubicles in the “high” group to increase feed space a cow to more than 0.75m/animal. In fact, they joke that the builders have never left since they moved in, with buildings and cubicle dimensions continuously being tweaked to maximise cow comfort and performance.


A complete herd relocation in 2011 highlighted the importance of sand in preventing new infection rates during the dry period, say Stuart and Colin Rogers.


But perhaps fundamental to the success of the system is the use of sand in cubicle housing; the benefits of which were highlighted following a complete herd relocation in 2011.

The Rogers cite this as one of the main influencers of a reduction in fresh-calving mastitis rates.

Longmoor Holsteins key stats
  • Relocated whole herd of 370 from Oxford to Dorset in 2011
  • Currently 200 in-milk, yielding 9,000 litres a cow a year (33% heifers in herd)
  • SCC: 107,000 cells/ml
  • Body condition scored as routine 100-60 days before calving – Target of 2.5-2.75 at drying off
  • 50-56-day dry period
  • Aim to have everything housed on sand
  • 90% cure rates in dry period
  • Fresh calver mastitis rate (first 30 days after calving), rolling three-month average of 12% (target < 8.3%)
  • Transition cow diet: 25kg maize silage, 5kg grass, 2.5kg blend, 3kg straw, 0.1kg mag crystals, 0.15kg minerals
  • 396-day calving interval, 42% conception to first service
  • Heifers calve in at 23-24 months

“At our old farm in Oxfordshire, all dry cows were housed on straw yards, so hygiene was an issue. Dry cow cure rates were a problem and cows were picking up new infections,” says Mr Rogers.

“We were doing everything we could to keep the milkers clean and dry, but then it was all falling apart in the straw yard.”

Prior to the farm move, the Rogers were using sexed semen to increase cow numbers, however, when the relocation was delayed by six months, this lead to overstocking and consequent pressure on the system.

“The straw yards were overstocked; there wasn’t enough feed space and we were using a lot of straw to keep cows clean,” he explains. “This was leading to high dry period infection rates.”

Mr Rogers says the aim at Longmoor is to “have everything with an udder on sand”, apart from during the brief period on straw in the calving pen. Currently, all the milkers are housed on mattresses and sand, however high stock numbers mean far off dry cows are currently moving into a straw yard.

“At the moment cows come into the deep bed sand cubicles 28 days prior to calving and heifers a minimum of two weeks prior to calving. However, we are looking to address this by putting in more cubicles – we can’t afford not to.”

The cubicles in the transition yard have been specifically set up for the farm’s large Holstein cows close to calving. The 2.1-metre diagonal, low 10cm curb and 1.2m width ensure maximum cow comfort.


The cubicles in the transition yard at Longmoor Farm have been specifically set up for the farm’s large Holstein cows when close to calving, with sand for comfort and cleanliness.

Drying off

Drying off protocol is also meticulous, with antibiotic use only targeted at cows that really need it. “For cows with somatic cell counts of less than 150,000 cells/ml, we just use a sealant. However, those with counts higher than 150,000 cells/ml, or those that have had mastitis in the past three months, get an antibiotic tube and sealant.”

Cows are usually dried off in groups and brought back into the parlour after milking. A firm emphasis is placed on cleanliness, with cotton wool soaked in surgical spirit used to clean teats. Each quarter is cleaned and tubed one at a time and everyone wears milking gloves.

The percentage of cows developing mastitis in the first 30 days in-milk (an indication of new infections picked up in the dry period), sat at 7% in December, with a three-month rolling average of 12%. This compares to a height of 59% in February 2012, when cows were temporarily moved to a highly-stocked loose straw yard.

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