What a difference a year makes! We finally housed the last of our youngstock in the last week of November this year about 1½ months later than last year.

And with the grass reseeds and winter wheat looking in reasonable nick so far, the year is definitely finishing much more positively than it started.

While we had a bit of a lull, I took a bit of time away last month to attend Premier Nutrition’s Total Transition technical conference, in Manchester. It was quite an intense day but there were some interesting points raised around ways to improve how cows cope with the period around calving.

First up was Mark Hall, from Premier Nutrition, who spoke about the latest analysis of their TMS data. While it has long been believed that maintaining good 'rumen fill' in dry cows is advantageous, the data Mark presented showed clear empirical evidence that improving rumen fill in dry cows leads to fewer issues when the cows calve down.

Not only that, but cows with average rumen fill score of 2, or less, gave 5kg less milk than those with scores greater than 3.

Next up was Dr Adam Lock, of Michigan State University, talking about fatty acid supplementation (FAS). His key point was that not all fats are equal and that increasing fat levels in the diet can actually boost fibre digestibility presumably by helping the bugs in the rumen to grow.

This seems to be an area where we have only just scratched the surface and it's clear there is a lot of work to do to identify the optimum balance of fatty acids at the various stages in a cow’s lactation.

Then, Dr Ruben Garcia, of Philbro Animal Health Corp, talked about feeding anionic salts to control milk fever.

This was, in essence, a talk about the advantages of feeding dry cows what is referred to as the DCAD diet, whereby the dry cow’s blood is 'acidified' by the addition of inorganic salts to their TMR which, in turn, leads to more excretion of calcium in the cow’s urine. This then drives increased calcium absorption from the diet during the dry period, so that her metabolism is prepared for the increased demand for calcium as she starts to produce milk.

This means that cows fed a DCAD diet can see their risk of post-calving issues such as RFM (retained fetal membranes), metritis and especially milk fever, more than halving.

If looking to implement a DCAD diet, he suggested that CaCl2 has advantages over other salt options (such as MgCl2, NH4Cl, and MgSO4) due to its relative palatability and also the fact that there is likely to be a reservoir of calcium in the rumen at calving.

Dr Garcia also had a note of caution around the use of calcium boluses as a supplement at calving. While targeted use on cows at high risk of milk fever is likely to give positive results, blanket use is contra-indicated as cows that already have the appropriate level of calcium in their blood around calving can actually end up with lower levels a couple of days after receiving the bolus because the natural balance has been disrupted.

The next speaker was Dr Phil Cardoso, of the University of Illinois, discussing the importance of of protein in the dry cow diet and in particular the amino acid, methionine.

We should be aiming to ensure that dry cows are getting >1200g of metabolisable protein each day in their diet. Interestingly, in most cases a dry cow’s diet will be relatively limited in methionine and Dr Cardoso showed evidence that the addition of methionine to dry cows' diets can lead not only increased milk production but also better fertility as the increased levels of methionine means that the eggs formed around calving are stronger, leading to a decreased early embryonic loss.

The final speaker was Dr Gordie Jones whose talk on what makes successful transition was summarised by Patsy Hunter in last week’s edition of The Scottish Farmer.

Overall, the conference was highly stimulating and certainly gave plenty of food for thought.