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How to manage transition cows on small farm

Dairy Program: Research shows dry matter intake is key to a successful lactation.

January 6, 2023

2 Min Read
cornfield in front of a working farm with red buildings and silos
PAY CLOSER ATTENTION: Care of the transition cow is not a new concept, but management strategies for the smaller farm may be overlooked. Farm Progress

Why is it that dairy farms in my area of Wisconsin are averaging below the state average of 24,884 pounds of milk per cow? This question caused me to ask questions to some farmers and agri-service providers.

One piece of the puzzle that emerged is this: We may need to pay closer attention to transition cows in smaller herds. Care of the transition cow is not a new concept, but management strategies for the smaller farm may be overlooked when recommendations are shared.

Prevent DMI from dropping

Research shows that in management of transition cows, dry matter intake is the key to a successful lactation. Appropriate DMI immediately prior to calving is critical, as intake is naturally decreased due to fetal growth and hormone changes in late pregnancy. The goal is to prevent DMI from dropping as long as possible, since that energy is critical for the health and production of the cow.

Working with a nutritionist to define the energy in the diet is essential in this period, as increased energy density could negatively affect DMI and/or digestion processes, but adequate energy is necessary to prevent disruption of metabolic processes. The key lies in keeping the rumen filled with the correct diet that helps transition the rumen microbes to the diet the cow will be eating in lactation.

For smaller operations that do not have the facilities or space to make a transition group in the barn, you might have to get creative to make sure cows in the transition period get the appropriate diet. For a tiestall barn, this might mean grouping the handful of transition cows you have at any given time next to each other to help with feeding the correct diet. You may need to prevent these cows from stealing the “normal” lactation diet being fed to the cow next to her by placing a board in the manger area as a divider.

Alternatively, if there doesn’t seem to be space in the barn for the transition cows, pasture or drylot space with a shelter may provide another management strategy to get the correct diet to these cows.

Limit social stress

Research also shows that environmental stressors, including social stress, can affect cow access to bunk space and feed, which can lower DMI. For herds that have a penning system and pen space to dedicate to transition cows, there are a couple of grouping strategies to keep in mind.

One strategy is to group cows within a set anticipated calving date together, with no new animals entering the pen until all cows have calved (all-in, all-out). An alternative strategy is to move cows in pairs if you must make changes in pens, as it takes about four days for the social order to be stabilized after grouping changes are made.

Seefeldt is the University of Wisconsin Extension dairy and livestock agent in Eau Claire County.

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