How dairy farmer has improved post-calving health

Dedicated housing for transition cows has improved post-calving cow health at a Welsh dairy farm.

John and Anna Booth invested in the new facility at Rhual Dairy, an AHDB Strategic Dairy Farm, near Mold, in 2018. The shed has provided more room, enabling the transition period to be extended to four weeks.

The previous infrastructure only had sufficient space for managing cows on a transition ration for up to two weeks.

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“We were getting everything else right, but we couldn’t get the cow transition right, we were always short of space,’’ Mr Booth admits, who runs a year-round calving herd of 336 Holstein Friesians.

In total, cows are dry for eight weeks.

Dry cow ration

It is formulated to deliver 120 megajoules (MJ) of energy is made up of 18kg third-cut silage, 6kg haylage bales, 6kg maize silage, 3.5kg chopped straw, 2kg protein blend and 0.150kg dry cow minerals.

They move to a far-shed and transfer to the close-up, transition shed for the last three to four weeks.

The transition shed has calving pens and the cows are moved to these at the point of calving and remain here for 48 hours after calving, before joining the milking group.

About the shed

The transition shed contains 27 cubicles – seven of which are portable and can be moved to create extra feed space or an additional calving pen – and three calving pens.

At the same time, the Booths invested in a new tub diet mixer from a barrel mixer, which chops straw to the short length required in the transition ration.

John Booth in shed with cow and calf

“That is doing a much better job that our old wagon so, although the base of the ration is much the same, it’s the processing of it that has changed.

“The diet is more consistent and we are seeing higher intakes on that,’’ says Mr Booth, who adds intakes have improved 10%.

Benefits

Since the changes were put in place, cases of retained foetal membranes are down from 3% to 2%, left displaced abomasums from 5% to 1% and milk fever cases have halved, to less than 1%.

“Cows are calving down a lot easier, they are cleaner and we are getting more or less no cases of milk fever.’’

Advice to improve transition

Phil Clarke of P&L Agri Consulting described the dry period as the single most important phase of production.

“These are the most important cows on the farm, treat them like queens and they will repay you,’’ said Mr Clarke.

Below, he makes some recommendations to improve success:

  • The dry period should be no shorter than six weeks
  • Cows need to develop a good appetite and rumen capacity in the close-to-calving period
  • To achieve this, maximise trough space – ideally 90cm a cow
  • Target 40-45% dry matter (DM) in the diet – add liquid to the ration if it is higher than this
  • Aim for a DM intake of 12-14kg and energy intake of 115-120MJ a cow a day and 13-5-15.5kg protein
  • Keep potassium as low as possible. Make specific dry cow silage that hasn’t had slurry applied to it. If you can separate fields and don’t put any slurry on these, it will make your life much easier in terms of milk fever and other health issues
  • Magnesium-to-potassium ratio should be at a maximum of 1:4 – if the ratio is greater then add more magnesium to the ration

Key health take-away messages

Dr Mo Kemp, of Wern Vets, the farm vet at Rhual Dairy, offer the following advice:

  • Monitor the energy levels of cows pre-calving by checking urine pH and ketone levels
  • Maintain body condition score (BCS) at 2.5-3 – it should be the same at drying-off as at calving
  • BCS monthly and consider increasing it to fortnightly in the dry period
  • Drying-off should be a specific task, not a job done at the end of milking, and an exceptional level of cleanliness is vital
  • Use surgical spirit and cotton wool, not the wipes that come with the tubes, and allow the cows to stand for 30min after drying-off
  • Inspect cows daily in the first week after drying-off