Paying attention to details and making lots of practical, small changes is the way to improve transition management and overall herd performance, according to Dr Huw McConochie, dairy nutritionist with Zinpro Corporation.
Trouble-shooting on farms across Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and Russia, Dr Huw McConochie’s role covers much more than just nutrition.
He says: “The role is quite different depending on the country I am visiting ‘trouble-shooting’ and making recommendations to help improve herd health and productivity.
I also do a lot of knowledge transfer, not just on nutrition but on the overall management of dairy cows.”
While hoof health overall has been a major focus for Zinpro, the transition period has become increasingly important and its newly updated FirstStep® Dairy Hoof Health and Management program allows advisers to go onto dairy farms and make an assessment of all the different elements which have been shown through research and experience to pre-dispose cows to hoof lesions.
It’s an audit of hoof health, but more importantly the program builds recommendations and offers guidelines.
It includes recommended values for items such as cubicle size, footbathing frequency, waiting times in holding pens and heat abatement and cooling.”
The program uses 19 different factors to assess the hoof health of the herd and make recommendations.
With specific reference to transition, cow comfort and foot health, it provides farmers with tools to understand the cost of lameness, to tackle the problem and to find key areas of improvement on the farm.
With regards to transition, Dr McConochie says: “Last year we started to work on a new model for FirstStep® which is the Transition Assessor.
This came about as a result of the work that Professor Nigel Cook and his colleagues from University of Wisconsin [see p4] had been doing which showed that transition was a high-risk period for hoof health and that those cows which transitioned poorly were at greater risk of developing hoof lesions later in lactation.
“The Transition Assessor is all about identifying the risks – looking at what the farm has and what it should have in terms of delivering the best possible blueprint for transition.”
Dr McConochie’s recommendations for better transition fall into the following areas:
Dr McConochie says: “The other thing we do with the Transition Assessor is to look at early lactation performance.
As well as milk production, it looks at disease incidences including retained placentas, metritis and LDAs.
We benchmark the data according to industry standards.
We are then able to deliver a report which shows the areas where changes need to be made.
“Acting on those recommendations the farmer needs to make small, practical changes.
We realise that not everyone has the ability or the investment to make major changes.
It may be that you don’t have enough room for an eight-week dry period, but you could move to a six-week dry period.
Could you change the way in which the cows are grouped to make better use of the facilities? Are there ways you could create more feed space? How can you create more time in the day for the cows to lie down? “These are the kind of practical, but realistic small changes that can make a big difference.
It’s a matter of making the best of what you have got.
“One of the great things about the FirstStep® program is that it also allows you to design facilities.
For instance, you can design the perfect cubicle for that farm based on cow size and other factors such as types of bedding.
Images from the specific farm and custom-made recommendations can be included.
Throughout the program there is a huge amount of information for the assessor, including the consequences of certain issues and recommendations for dealing with them.”
When it comes to facilities for transition cows, Dr McConochie says: “I think it’s important for people to understand that while the dry cow facility only needs to be 15% of the size of the milking cow facility, every cow goes through it and the health and performance of every cow is influenced by it.
In terms of return on investment it is a relatively small outlay but a big potential return.
“FirstStep® is very cow-centric and, of course, the dairy cow is at the heart of our businesses.
Sometimes there seems to be a reluctance to invest in those things which will make a real difference to the cow such as deep-bedded cubicles.
The same argument applies to the investment in transition facilities, with the cows at the centre of our businesses we should be prepared to invest.
“Within transition facilities we should provide flexibility because we can’t always predict the numbers.
For farms which are seasonal calving transition is, if anything, even more important because you only get one chance a year to get it right.
Even spring calvers need to pay close attention to transition cow management.”
Dr McConochie adds that a lot of people believe that as the cow comes to the end of lactation towards the dry period the need for trace minerals declines.
“People forget that within this cow there is a calf growing,” he says.
“Also with heifers you have big changes taking place such as udder development.
All this requires trace minerals.
In the case of bone and skin formation it’s predominantly proteins and macro-minerals, but it’s trace minerals which keep everything together.
“Much of the research data we have is focused on the transition period and it shows that feeding the correct level and source of trace minerals during this time leads to a reduction in transition diseases, as well as improvements in milk production and performances and in hoof health in the first 10 weeks of lactation.
“As a result of getting the supplementation with trace minerals right we find that the animal has a more robust immune system.
If the cow has a better immune system, it actually uses less energy.
It then has more glucose which is surplus and aids production, but also helps reproductive performance and development of the claws.
We have evidence which indicates that cows fed Zinpro Performance Minerals® have better hoof health as a result of having a better glucose balance.
“A lot of farms have a ‘far-off’ dry group and a ‘close-up’ group and the ‘far-off’ cows get the cheapest supplementation.
When you change to better supplements across all dry cows the problems decrease and it is worth the investment when you look at the long-term outcomes,” he adds.
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