Why transition period is so crucial to dairy herd profitability

Paying less attention to dry cows is a fast route to poor post-calving performance. Dairy Update looks at why the transition period is so important to dairy herd profitability

Ask a dairy farmer what the key driver of profit is and chances are you’ll get a wide variety of answers; everything from yield to calving interval and margin over costs. Ask specialist cattle vet John Cook of Valley Agricultural Software and he has no hesitation: fertility.

“Fertility drives profit, and feed quality and intake drives fertility. It is as simple as that,” he says.

“I’ve travelled all over the world working with dairy herds and seen it time and again; where farmers cut corners on feed quality to reduce cost, particularly in the crucial transition cow phase, there is a simultaneous reduction in fertility.

“Because the effect of this corner-cutting is not made apparent until months afterwards, when cows fail to get back in calf before 100 days in milk, or see poor peak milk yield, farmers struggle to identify the real culprit.

“There is a critical period for a dairy cow, which runs from 21 days prior to calving to 21 days after calving and getting feeding wrong during this phase will have far-reaching consequences for fertility and hence profit,” warns Mr Cook, who believes many herds would see a significant lift in fertility with a close focus on nutritional consistency and control during this period.

His warning is especially timely during the autumn, when many producers look to delay housing while the weather holds.

Tom Hough, technical manager at NWF Agriculture, says his field-based colleagues see farmers running dry cows on autumn grass, which looks reasonable, but actually has poor dry matter intake potential and is therefore insufficient in energy.

“There’s a real risk of getting the nutrition of this group of cows wrong at this time of year, so it can be far more cost effective in the long run to bring these cows inside on a controlled diet.

“Where that is not possible, a possible short-term solution can be feeding good-quality big bale silage at grass along with mineral buckets,” says Mr Hough.

John Cook
Cattle vet John Cook says to keep in mind the three cornerstones of successful transition cow management; energy balance, calcium balance, immune competence.

He advises farmers to be aware of the “rest, repair and prepare” function of the dry cow period and to take care to ensure cows are condition scored to make sure they are at optimum body condition.

Mr Cook agrees, and says it’s also important to keep in mind the three cornerstones of successful transition cow management:

  • Energy balance
  • Calcium balance
  • Immune competence

“The development of pregnancy through the first 30 days is driven by the quality and health of the egg that develops in the cow’s ovary, which is related to the quality of the cytoplasm in the follicle.

“Developing eggs in the ovary are sensitive to the cow’s energy balance at 60 days prior to ovulation. Cows in a poor nutritional state at this point will see egg quality compromised,” says Mr Cook.

“A compromised immune system and existing infection such as metritis will also impact on egg quality. All this is happening at a time when the cow’s natural biological drive to eat large quantities of feed is at its lowest ebb in that transition period.

“While you can’t overcome that reduction in dry matter intake (DMI), you can drastically reduce it. DMI at seven days prior to calving is a key performance indicator; get the energy and protein balance and density of the ration right then, keep her eating and, once she calves, her natural desire to eat should return,” says Mr Cook.

He adds that desire to eat needs to be triggered in new calvers by encouraging them to the feed barrier and keeping a plentiful supply of fresh ration in front of them at all times.

Mr Cook and Mr Hough agree there are many dry cow management systems and all can work when the correct management is applied. But rations need to be tailored to the herd yield, with the needs of a 6,000-litre herd very different to those of a 10,000-litre one.

“It is possible to do a very good job using higher quality forages topped up with either high specification dry cow nuts or a tailored blend, which also includes the essential vitamins and minerals that should never be seen as optional for dry cows,” says Mr Hough.

Separate dry cows sees success

Matthew Andrew, East Gortleigh Farm

Matthew Andrew says there’s nothing complicated about the dry cow management of his 150-cow herd at East Gortleigh Farm, Black Torrington near Holsworthy.

“We feed them round bale haylage plus 2kg a day of a specialist dry cow feed. The haylage is top quality – I don’t believe in feeding dry cows rubbish – and provides the fibre they need for good rumen health,” says Mr Andrew.

The dry cow feed is formulated using a good range of energy and protein sources plus vitamins and minerals. The system replaced one that saw dry cows run alongside those in milk, with negative consequences.

“Lack of housing meant we ran them together and, unsurprisingly, we ended up with fat dry cows and serious problems with fatty liver and milk fever. By changing our transition cow management, we now have virtually no milk fever or retained cleansings.”

The herd runs at around a 10,000-litre average, with high yielders kept indoors all year round and fed a grass and maize silage-based TMR, along with crimped wheat and blend to 28 litres, topped up with concentrate to 10kg/day in the parlour.

As grass quality declines into the autumn, low yielders are buffered with grass silage and crimped wheat.

“Generally we run the dry cows as one group, but at this time of year the close ups will come off grass and move onto the haylage and dry cow feed. We’ve made mistakes in the past and I don’t want to repeat them,” adds Mr Andrew.