David Douglas is farm manager of Cowhill Trust Farms Bellfield, Holywood, Dumfries, milking 220 pure Ayrshire cows, on a 700-acre grassland unit of which 250 acres are used to grow cereals .

Operating a traditional system, cows are turned out to grazing in the spring and are calved all year round. All replacement heifers are home bred with 60% of cows being served to pure Ayrshire bulls, while the remainder are beef sired.

While performance in terms of milk yield has always been good, with cows averaging around 28litres per day, health issues at calving were a regular occurrence which was significantly lowering efficiency and adding to the cost of production.

“Retained cleansings were a problem in around 20 to 25% of cows, with metritis and reduced fertility being subsequent complications. Not only was this costing us dearly in terms of the immediate treatment costs incurred, the added longer-term implications, for example from extended calving intervals, were significant,” says Mr Douglas.

In an attempt to address this, he began reviewing his dry cow and transition management and with the help of Premier Nutrition’s Transition Management Systems (TMS), he has managed to significantly improve herd health and performance, an achievement that saw him win the 2016 TMS award.

Along with halving the incidence of retained placentas, other key areas including lameness and rumen fill are now better than the UK average. Mr Douglas believes that preparing the cows properly for calving, including a smooth transition onto the production ration, has helped achieve this.

“Our previous policy was to dry cows off eight weeks pre-calving, on a low-quality pasture. A couple of weeks prior to calving, we would then introduce 3kg of concentrate at grass and cows would calf down outside,” says Mr Douglas.

However, two years ago he made some fundamental changes to this system and started to pay much closer attention to management and nutrition during the dry period, with decisions aided by the monthly data gathered by a TMS assessor.

Mr Douglas explains the key components of the revised dry cow management programme.

“Eight weeks prior to calving, cows are dried off on low quality grazing for five weeks. Three weeks prior to calving, they are brought back to the farm in groups of six to limit stress, and housed for the remainder of the dry period.

“At this point, we introduce the transition diet. A good quality silage is introduced to the ration along with some straw, at a ratio of three-parts silage to one-part straw. Crucially, the silage fed during this period is the same as during early lactation, which helps condition the rumen,” explains Mr Douglas.

Additionally, 3kg of Davidsons Total Dry nuts are fed. Along with boosting protein and energy in the diet, the concentrate feed also contains Yea-Sacc, a live yeast, as well as optimum levels of key trace elements including copper, zinc, manganese and selenium.

The trace elements are provided entirely in the form of Alltech’s Bioplex and Selplex, which are organically chelated, opposed to traditionally used inorganic forms. Inclusion of a live yeast can prove very valuable when introducing the transition diet, particularly when a high proportion of cereals are being introduced, explains John Rogers, ruminant nutritionist at Davidsons Animal Feeds.

“A live yeast helps rumen function, and especially stimulates rumen bacteria that utilise lactic acid, therefore lowering the risk of acidosis. It can also help stimulate dry matter intake (DMI).

This is important during the close-up period when a cow’s appetite can be variable, as well as post calving when nutrient demands for production can exceed intake.

Both could result in a negative energy balance and the loss of body condition, which can prove particularly detrimental to subsequent fertility,” says Mr Rogers.

He adds that along with key minerals, it’s also important to include trace elements in dry cow diets because of their vital role in a host of body processes, including immunity.

“At calving time, a cow may become immuno suppressed because of the major physiological changes that occur.

“The inclusion of high quality minerals and trace elements, can help reduce the impact of this and lower the incidence of production diseases at calving, such as retained cleansings and metritis,” explains Mr Rogers.

However, he encourages producers to be aware of the differences in trace element supply.

“In most compound feeds, you will find inorganic forms of trace elements such as oxides, chlorides, sulphates, and carbonates. Inorganic minerals and trace elements aren’t as readily absorbed and cannot be stored by the animal, unlike organic forms.”

Therefore, to see the full benefits of an optimum trace element supply, producers should consider full inclusion of organic trace elements. This is something that has been supported by a recent analysis of TMS data.

“When we compared TMS data from Scottish herds that received Davidson’s Total Dry nuts to herds that were fed the same compound without the inclusion of a live yeast and organic trace elements, the most notable difference was, that the incidence of acidosis and lameness during the transition period in cows fed Total Dry nuts, was more than half,” says Mr Rogers.

Mr Douglas added that cows are given 30kg of the production ration as soon as they calve. This includes silage and home-grown cereals along with a specifically formulated Davidsons blend to balance the ration. “We find that immediately after calving, cows have a good appetite and by filling the rumen, it helps avoid a displaced abomasum.” He added that bringing the cows in for the last three weeks ensures easier management of nutrient intake especially when grass quality is variable.

“It’s especially important in Ayrshire cows to carefully balance the ration, as they have a tendency to lay a lot of fat down. This can predispose them to metabolic diseases at calving, so it crucial to get body condition score right with a target of 3-3.5,” says Mr Douglas.

“Being housed also reduces environmental stress from the weather, and or stress caused by movement at calving, which again can increase the incidence of disease.”

Ensuring the rumen is functioning optimally come calving is also key, and to achieve this, a smooth transition in diet is required to avoid any digestive upsets, adds Mr Douglas. “Not only does this help maximise efficiency in early lactation when a cow is most able to utilise nutrients, it avoids a significant change in body condition which can impair fertility.”

While retained cleansings remain slightly higher than the UK average, he said the incidence rate has halved and the herd has come on leaps and bounds since monitoring and managing the dry and transition period. “It’s very difficult to manage what you’re not monitoring and therefore utilising the TMS service has helped identify the problem areas. By alerting us to the early warning signs, we can remedy the problem before it becomes a major issue and starts knocking health, production and fertility.

“I would encourage farms to review the dry and transition period as it is often the missing link in dairy cow management and nutrition, and can really impact the bottom line,” concluded Mr Douglas.