Transition cow feeding can seem a complex business, but sophisticated compound feeds are simplifying the process.
The transition cow is one of the most important animals on the dairy farm, according to Alison Ewing, technical development manager at ForFarmers. Yet feeding her correctly can seem a daunting process.
Mrs Ewing says getting feeding and management correct flows through the whole system, not just through the cow’s own health and performance in her subsequent lactation, but also to her calf.
This calf, if a replacement heifer, then has the best chance possible of being born easily, receiving high quality colostrum, having resistance to infection, meeting growth rate targets, calving at 24 months and putting in a good performance in her first lactation.
But getting it wrong can have serious repercussions. Milk fever itself may be one of the first and most obvious health issues to arise when transition management does not go to plan, but it can set off a domino effect.
Mrs Ewing says: “Milk fever could be considered a gateway disease, as it can contribute to a whole succession of metabolic disorders after calving. These can range from metritis and retained foetal membranes to displaced abomasums and ketosis.
“If milk fever is clinical and you can see the symptoms, you will certainly have other problems, but if it is sub-clinical and you cannot see the symptoms, those other problems are still likely to be lurking in the background.”
In fact, research has shown more than 80% of health and performance problems in the dairy herd are due to poor management and nutrition during the transition period.
This transition period is considered to run from about 56 days before calving (the far-off dry period) until around 30 days after calving (see graphic, left).
Within this period, there is also the close-up dry period (from 21 days before calving until calving itself) and the fresh cow period (the fi rst 30 days of lactation).
The best way to tackle health issues associated with transition is through appropriate management and feeding. This is typically thought of as achieving the right calcium status for the cow, but there are also other areas which need addressing.
She says: “It is really important to keep the rumen working during the dry period. This way, the cowwill maintain her muscle tone and be conditioned to achieve a high dry matter intake, which is so important after calving.”
She says it is important this fi bre intake does not come from an over-supply of high quality forage, such as grazed grass or silage, which can be high in calcium and potassium.
“An over-supply of ensiled orfresh grass is a fairly typical mistake in the dry period.”
However, farmers who are aware of the benefi ts of keeping dry cows on a fairly bare paddock at this time of year, also helping avoid excess body condi- tion, are also likely to be supplementing long fi bre, such as straw, as well as dry cow minerals.
“One method of transition management is through use of the dietary cation-anion balance [DCAB] system, which can be difficult to operate.
“There are so many things to weigh up and implement. You will need to analyse the mineral status of your forages, balance your ration, and feed your cows under cover because of the soluble nature of the DCAB minerals.”
Monitoring cows’ urine pH adds further to the complexity if the system is being carried out to the letter.
We would see a move away from full DCAB systems to a partial DCAB with other alternatives being simply delivered in specialised product solutions, such as TRANSLAC, for example.
DCAB is about maintaining a balance of positively charged cations and negatively charged anions in the cow’s blood in the transition period.
When more anions are fed (and a lower blood pH achieved),the cow reacts by mobilising calcium (a cation) stored in her bones to buffer the fall in pH.
This prepares her for the time when large amounts of calcium will be needed for milk production, and explains why anions are fed in DCAB rations. Conversely, if too many cations are fed, for example through a high potassium forage, such as most grass silages, the cow’s calcium remains locked up and is therefore unavailable. As a result, she may suffer with low blood calcium levels (hypocalcaemia) otherwise known as milk fever.
A more recent innovation is calcium capture, which involves the binding of free calcium (and sodium and potassium) cations, so reducing the risk of milk fever.
MRS Ewing explains that the range starts with TRANSLAC Rolls, ‘a 24% protein, low cal- cium system, which is geared towards a typical and traditional kind of herd’.
The high protein promotes tissue repair and high quality colostrum, while some anionic salts help lower the DCAB and prevent milk fever. It can be fed to far-off and close-up dry cows.
She says: “It is important to be cautious about concentrate input in far-off cows, as they may not need any concentrate at all.”
At a slightly higher level of performance, she suggests TRANSLAC Extra could have a role in the close-up period.
She says: “With its 26% protein, higher specifi cation and prepare+package, these nuts boost health, immunity and colostrum quality, while also containing anionic salts.
"A further level up again are TRANSLAC Advance nuts. These have all the benefi ts of TRANSLAC Extra, but also feature calcium capture.
“They are really good at pre- venting milk fever and are aimed at the highest yielding herds.”
Knowing which feed is most appropriate for a part- icular system involves a careful assessment of risks, history, forage mineral status and herd performance.
Mrs Ewing says: “All of this can be done with your ForFarmers feed adviser, using the Dietplan Milk Fever Prevention Index. “Getting it right does not need to be complicated, but can be more rewarding than it seems at fi rst glance, not simply by improving the health of the cow through transition and lactation, but also setting up her calf for a productive life ahead."
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