The importance of good transition nutrition to cow health is well understood by dairy producers. But a new Dairy Farmer survey, sponsored by ForFarmers, reveals they may be missing out on some wider ranging benefits which affect the performance and growth of every calf born and reared on-farm.
The survey on transition cow management revealed mixed messages.
On the one hand, livestock producers who took part showed an excellent awareness of the immediate benefits of having specific dry and transition cow rations, with some 88% of respondents expecting these would lead to better cow health after calving.
However, when asked whether they had a specific transition cow feeding system in place on their farms, almost half (45%) of respondents did not.
Furthermore, although there was almost universal awareness of the improvements in subsequent lactation which would result from better transition feeding, its benefits to calf health and performance were less widely recognised.
This is an area which could be costing producers lost performance and money, according to Alison Ewing, ForFarmers technical devlopment manager, who believes it could also be compromising the all-important economic target of calving at 24 months.
She says: “Across the dairy industry, there is a great deal of knowledge of dry and transition cow management and the effects it can have on cow health, as well as milking performance, in the subsequent lactation.
“However, there is far less appreciation of its impact on the birth process and on the calf which is born to that cow.”
This was shown by the fact fewer than half (49%) of respondents thought it had an impact on the birth process, while 35% and 64%, respectively, thought it impacted on the volume and quality of colostrum.
Mrs Ewing says: “The reality is transition feeding can have a profound influence on the health and performance of the calf, and this influence starts well before it is born.”
For example, the last four weeks of gestation are a time of rapid intestinal growth. Research has shown this is strongly influenced by transition cow nutrition, with inadequate protein and energy intakes known to compromise this developmental process.
“Farmers need little reminding of the importance of the animal’s digestive tract to its subsequent health and performance, but they may not have considered what they can do to influence its development before it is even born,” says Mrs Ewing.
“They know a healthy digestive system puts the calf in a good position to absorb nutrients from its mother’s colostrum, and even more important is its ability to absorb antibodies provided by the colostrum, which are essential to its own health.
“The calf’s ability to acquire this passive immunity diminishes rapidly within hours of its birth, which is why it is so important, not only to achieve an early intake of colostrum, but also to ensure the newborn calf’s intestine is well-developed and ready to work efficiently,”
But there is a double bonus in this respect from good transition nutrition, as this has also been shown to have a significant effect on the yield and quality of a cow’s colostrum.
Mrs Ewing says: “If the colostrum quality is high, that is a further piece of the jigsaw, and this too is significantly influenced by transition feeding.
“When everything comes together – colostrum quality, the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies and good timely husbandry practices – research has shown calf scouring significantly declines and growth rates increase.”
Relating this to the survey, it is clear there is significant scope for improvement, as 53% of respondents did not test their cows’ colostrum quality, while 62% only rated theirs as ‘average’.
However, perhaps the most telling finding is that only 41% of respondents said they hit targets for age at first calving, and not many more (59%) said their calves achieved target growth rates.
Mrs Ewing says: “Farmers do not need reminding of how much this will be costing their business in terms of lost life-long performance.
“But they may need reminding that they have a one-off window of opportunity, during which they can significantly influence their heifers’ development, and this extends from before the animal is born until it is just a few weeks old.
“After that, the ability to influence the development of the animal is much more limited.”
Referring to question 10 of the survey (see graph 2, below), which showed many farms had no transition feeding system in place, he urged them to consider what was preventing them making a change.
She says: “It could be the lack of time or labour, an inappropriate infrastructure, or the inability to group, but more often than not, the potential exists for them to remove this limitation on the young animal’s performance.
“If they do, I am confident they will be well-rewarded, not just by giving their cows a healthy start to lactation, but also by giving calves a healthy start to life.”
Further details of the impact of transition nutrition on early life development and actions farmers can take will be covered in the next two articles in this series.
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