We spoke to three independent experts about transition cow management.
Jon Mouncey is a technical services veterinary consultant with Genus ABS.
He says: “I have been working primarily helping customers to identify opportunities in the area of reproductive management.
Part of that has been analysing the Genus RMS dataset which covers 300,000 cows.
“One of the things we are trying to understand is where the bottlenecks are and transition certainly emerges as one of the areas which is creating problems.
A particular challenge is when herd reproduction is disrupted, you see peaks and troughs in numbers of animals calving through the system in given months, as opposed to an average number, which is what most farmers’ systems are designed for.”
One area Mr Mouncey highlights for the summer months is heat stress.
He says: “We see a lot of dry cows affected by heat stress and the implications on reproduction go a lot further than most people think.
Taking this as an example of something which can disrupt the system, heat stress invariably reduces conception to first and second services.
Cows that should have become pregnant in summer, fall pregnant at a later time, for example, September/ October which puts pressure on the system and often end up calving in summer introducing seasonality and compounding transition challenges.
“As far as transition is concerned, typically we see 55% of cows getting through the first 30 days of milking without a problem, but that means there are 45% that do have a problem.
In fact, top herds can achieve 80% going through that period without a problem, but there’s a lot of herds that do have issues.
“A lot of people with transition issues often look for the ‘silver bullet’, they look for the one thing which will make a difference.
I say ‘if you do multiple things consistently well’ that will achieve results.” Mr Mouncey is in favour of more data-driven decisionmaking and in his experience many farmers have not set Key Performance Indicators, but he emphasises simply gathering data on what has gone wrong will not solve the problem.
“I see a lot of people concentrating on the clinical conditions that they can see but not looking at the sub-clinical.” He adds those who are really making progress are looking at how they monitor the leading metrics – ‘my intakes aren’t good enough’, ‘the dry matter has changed in my dry cow ration’.
“If you can monitor these leading metrics, then you can make changes that will make a difference.
That’s the real challenge we need to have in our mindset.”
Nigel Cook is a professor in the Food Animal Production Medicine section of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Veterinary Medicine.
He worked as a vet in Wiltshire before becoming a lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire and moved to Wisconsin in 1999.
He developed The Dairyland Initiative – a resource to drive the creation of welfare-friendly cattle housing in 2010.
Facilities have been a main focus area for Prof Cook.
He says: “This has been a step change for our industry, we fed cows well, we had good genetics, but the facilities we had were just not good enough for our cows to reach their potential.
That has been our focus for the last 10 years.” The building of transition cow barns has been a major step forward.
“Nobody thought it was possible to build these barns and make an economic case.
Bankers couldn’t get their heads around building a barn that you didn’t put any lactating cows in.
Before then, all the dry cows lived in an old barn, now they live in a purpose-built barn because we were able to show that it made economic sense and it impacted the rest of the cow’s lactation.
Justifying the cost
“In terms of justifying the cost of transition facilities we had to move from looking at clinical disease prevention to linking the investment in facilities and management changes to early lactation performance through milk production.
My colleagues and I built a transition cow index, which was a measure of early lactation milk performance, which is used alongside other similar early lactation milk monitors such as first test milk, week two milk and week four milk, rather than just peak milk.
By linking to sub-clinical disease impacting milk production – rather than clinical disease – we were able to justify the investment in transition facilities.
“The lactation curve has three components – start-up, peak and persistency – and people just ignored start-up for a long time.
Now we understand that even herds which achieve very good peak milk can improve their start-up milk.” Prof Cook says the larger herds become, the more vital transition is and the more feasible it is to invest in facilities and manpower to manage this period.
In Wisconsin, this means anything above 300 cows needs these separate facilities.
In larger herds the lack of transition facilities can lead to additional stress at a critical time.
“Having a dedicated worker or someone with sufficient time in the day to survey the fresh pen – cows within 21-30 days – means cows can be examined every day for signs of clinical and sub-clinical milk fever, ketosis and for DAs,” he says.
Looking at what is happening in the UK in particular, Prof Cook believes that the industry needs to be better at having a handle on detailed information.
He adds: “I’m sure it has got better, but when I first came to the States, if I asked a dairy farmer what their pre-fresh dry matter intake was, they would know straight away, whereas a UK dairy farmer wouldn’t be tracking that kind of key information.”
Andrew Suddes is a consultant with Promar International.
He has worked there for 10 years and works mainly with dairy farmers across the north of England and Scotland, providing technical and financial advice.
Talking about data use for managing the transition period, he says: “When I started doing this job there was little data, maybe just milk recording data.
Things have improved considerably since then with herd management software and milk recording data and we are able to track things better.
“The most common problem we are seeing is cows failing to produce early lactation litres.
If I was a vet, I would say it was sub-clinical milk fever – energy shortage both pre- and post-calving.
There’s lots of data we can use to show farmers that the cows are not reaching their peak, are taking too long to get in-calf and are losing body condition during early lactations.
“Getting cows to peak at the right time and getting them back in-calf is crucial, whatever the size of your herd.” He adds: “For me, the biggest thing is the lack of focus on the dry cow period, pre-calving.
There is just not enough attention paid to those six weeks before calving.
That could be easily changed, it’s about seeing drying off as the start of the next lactation, not the end of the previous one.
“In spring a lot of farmers will take the dry cows and move them out to grass.
But if conditions change it is very easy for those cows’ intake to drop drastically.
If there’s one thing I would recommend it’s that farmers monitor and manage the intake of cows pre-calving – particularly in those crucial three weeks before calving.
If you can manage the dry matter and energy intake alongside your advisers, I believe that is a ‘game-changer’.
“Those cows that don’t get the right intake are the ones that will suffer after calving.
By that time there’s not a lot you can do to bring their performance back up.
“For me all the metabolic issues are linked to intake.
They are not encouraging the cow to eat and that affects performance, but you also get a spiral effect.
The body condition falls away and this leads to additional problems with fertility.
The production and fertility problems are the tip of the iceberg.
You need to dig down and find the root cause.
“From a nutritional point of view, it always comes down to intakes.
Of course, there’s a myriad of other factors such as feed space, drinking space and ventilation.
These are things that farmers should challenge themselves on and can fix.
“I know not everyone will agree, but there is a good living to be made out of dairy farming and there’s an incentive to invest and there is a return on that investment.
Even on farms where things are going well there is always an opportunity to improve.”
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