By Lorna MacPherson

Dairy consultant, SAC Consulting

Managing the transition cow for health and performance was the focus for a recent event at East Logan Farm, Castle Douglas, hosted by the Yates family – husband and wife team, Brian and Sheila Yates and son Michael – and organised by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

The transition period covers the three-week period both before and after calving, when the cow is coping with hormonal and metabolic changes during late pregnancy and the onset of lactation. Careful management through this period is crucial to ensure good health, milking performance and reproductive success.

Attention to detail is key to ensuring a successful transition and at East Logan, independent nutritionist Hugh Kerr focuses management on making sure condition is adjusted prior to drying off, holding condition at the target score of 2.5 to 3 by controlling energy intake and maintaining rumen fill throughout the dry period.

One dry cow group is operated, meaning that there are minimal cow movements and changes during this period. The aim is to achieve high levels of intakes in the first two weeks post-calving and fresh cows are housed in a separate group with more cubicle and feed space compared to the main herd. With the pedigree Holstein herd currently averaging 35 litres and 2.5kg milk solids/cow/day at 167 days in milk and a calving interval of 390 days, their transition cow management is clearly working well.

According to East Logan’s vet, Alistair Padkin of Nithsdale Vets Limited, the incidence of milk fever is just below the target 5% and metritis around 5%. The herd practices selective dry cow therapy with 95% of cows being dried off without antibiotics and the mastitis incidence rate is very low with an impressive <5 cases/100 cows/year.

Nutritional strategies for milk fever prevention is a key part of dry cow management as cows experiencing milk fever are more at risk of other transition diseases.

Lorna MacPherson of SAC Consulting stressed the importance of recording the incidence of milk fever and carrying out regular forage mineral analysis, especially when forage changes occur, to ensure that mineral supply in the close up ration is balanced correctly for milk fever prevention.

Alastair Macrae who runs the Dairy Herd Health and Productivity Service at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, discussed the benefits of metabolic profile tests and "ask the cows" how well the ration is performing.

"High non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA’s) from mobilisation of body reserves during the dry period can lead to 2litres less milk per day throughout lactation, the cow being two to four times more likely to develop retained placenta and metritis and 19% less likely to get back in calf,” he said.

The effect of social stress on cows is often underestimated. Katrina Henderson of SRUC Veterinary Services explained that grouping of unfamiliar cows affected calving performance through immuno suppression and less milk being produced during lactation. Following a group move, it takes three to four days for the pecking order to be re-established, she said. Dry matter intake can decrease by up to 10% with the addition of new cows into a pen, with the impact most marked in the new entrants, heifers and smaller cows.

Ms Henderson suggested avoiding frequent additions to transition pens and moving cows in pairs or small groups. This is particularly important for heifers and she advised not moving animals around feeding time, wait until cows are quiet.

Andrew Pine from Premier Nutrition backed up this evidence on stress at calving with results from their Transition Management System monitoring programme. He also suggested that a staggering 76% of cows had some sort of transition issue and failed to reach their expected peak yield.

Stillbirths is an area that often goes unrecorded but Tim Geraghty from SRUC Veterinary Services stressed the importance of calculating the percentage of stillbirths in the herd and if it is higher than 3-4% then investigate causes. Risk factors include calf size, genetics, choice of bull, nutrition and availability of labour. Heifers are a much bigger risk than cows for stillbirths so heifer management is an important area to assess.

IceRobotics also work closely with the Yates to ensure they are getting the most from the recently installed CowAlert system, which uses a unique rear leg-based sensor to continually monitor the health, lameness and fertility of each animal. Hugh Kerr, now also a consultant with IceRobotics, highlighted how the data delivered by CowAlert has been a game-changer for the Yates family:

“The CowAlert system has proven to be a really positive addition to the farm here, with the team fully committed to using the data for early lameness detection and intervention to improve overall animal wellbeing. On average farmers are only recognising 25% of lame cows by sight. CowAlert analyses lying times and helps to identify early lameness issues which otherwise would be missed. Influencing these lying times can lead to a significant payback for farmers in a short space of time. It effectively acts as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the farmer, freeing them up to spend time on other important tasks.”