The transition period is a critical time in a dairy cow’s life. Providing proactive care is a vital practice that can help reduce calving-related disorders, boost milk production and extend cow longevity. There is a myriad of potential issues that can arise, and while this crucial period requires special attention and management, due diligence can pay off in the long run.
Managing changing nutrition needs throughout the transition period
“There are three different rations: one that’s formulated on paper, one that gets mixed and fed, and one that the cows actually eat,” said Jennifer Roberts, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim. “In a perfect world, these would all be the same, but in reality, cows can be picky eaters, and particular care needs to be given to ensure her ration is balanced for the cow’s metabolic needs, and is properly mixed with the correct components and proper particle length to minimize sorting.”
Providing an adequate diet to align with changing nutritional needs is an important component to success during the transition period’s three milestones:
1) Dry period
During the dry period, managing calcium levels through a negative dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD) diet is recommended. Studies have shown a well-formulated negative DCAD ration results in increased dry-matter intake in early lactation, increased milk production, decreased disease incidence, fewer displaced abomasa and improved reproductive performance.1
Nutrition plays a big part in supporting energy demands, calcium needs and immune function for the transition cow, particularly around the time of calving. Low blood calcium can contribute to dystocia, or delays in the calving process, by decreasing muscle tone and uterine contractions. Uterine contractions after calving also aid in expulsion of any contaminants in the reproductive tract that may have resulted from calving. Normal postpartum involution of the uterus is essential for future reproductive health and is aided by a strong immune system.
Immediately after calving, cows must adjust to the high calcium demands of colostrum and subsequent milk production. During this time, it can be difficult for a cow to maintain calcium balance, thus predisposing her to fresh cow diseases.
“Cows at risk of having low calcium can benefit from an oral calcium supplement at calving, and again 12 hours later,” noted Dr. Roberts. “This practice provides much-needed calcium to fresh cows when blood calcium levels may be at their lowest.”
Supplementation is a safety net for Celso Veldañez Jr., and his team at Consolidated Dairy Management in Texas.
“In general, DCAD is a blanket protocol to maintain energy balance, but when you’re looking at each individual animal, that’s where an oral calcium supplement comes in,” said Veldañez. “Some cows will get what they need through a DCAD diet, but what if other cows don’t? That’s where supplementing really saves us.”
An added benefit, says Dr. Roberts, is that calcium supplementation may help reduce some other issues that calcium-deficient cows may be more prone to, like decreased feed intake and ketosis.
The importance of diligent monitoring
Throughout the transition period, a calving cow should get all the special care she deserves, from an appropriately formulated diet and comfortable bedding to plenty of space and relief from potential causes of stress. With more than 35% of all dairy cows having at least one clinical disease event during the first 90 days of milk, it’s important to observe fresh cows daily.2
Early detection of diseases
In the postpartum period, the changing demand for calcium can often lead to hypocalcemia. Careful monitoring and blood testing, especially if your herd has been impacted in the past, can help you and your team prevent or treat the issue, while also helping to reduce the number of disorders that can impact milk production and subsequent reproductive performance. Cows with persistent or delayed subclinical hypocalcemia are more likely to develop subsequent early-lactation diseases, be removed from the herd, and have reduced milk yield compared with normocalcemic cows or cows with transient subclinical hypocalcemia,3 highlighting the need for diligent monitoring.
“Prevention of many fresh cow diseases relies very heavily on management,” said Dr. Roberts.
Pay particular attention to the cows that have previously calved, as older cows are more likely to be at higher risk for hypocalcemia, with their higher milk production, compared to first-lactation animals.3 Targeted oral calcium supplementation for cows in their second lactation and greater is one strategy for managing subclinical hypocalcemia in this group of higher-risk cows.
Minimizing stress during freshening
Many issues that can arise during the postpartum period have to do with stress, including decreased immune function, ketosis, metritis, mastitis and displaced abomasum. These health events can lead to other problems like poor milk production, impaired reproductive performance or early removal from the herd.
“A well-laid transition plan that includes diligent management practices to ensure a stress-free environment can help your herd through this period seamlessly,” explained Dr. Roberts. “Providing a calm environment with adequate space and relief from potential causes of stress seem like small actions, but can have lasting impacts.”
Continuous comfort management
A key piece of providing a stress-free environment throughout the transition period is prioritizing comfort. Leading up to and post calving, take measures to optimize cow comfort such as ensuring adequate stocking densities and feed bunk space, comfortable bedding, installing cooling systems, limiting pen moves and maintaining a clean environment.
“Some of the best dairy producers out there understand that things like cooling, comfort and stocking density are going to help cows perform at their optimal peak,” said Veldañez. “It’s important to have animals in tip-top shape, so that they can really perform during their lactation.”
How the cow handles the stress associated with calving and moves through the transition period influences her production, health, ability to become pregnant again, and ability to remain in the herd. Be sure to work with your local veterinarian to develop prevention and treatment protocols that reduce the risk of diseases occurring during transition to improve herd health and performance.
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health
Boehringer Ingelheim is the second largest animal health business in the world, with net sales of $4.5 billion (4 billion euros) in 2019 and presence in more than 150 markets. The firm has a significant presence in the United States, with more than 3,100 employees in places that include Georgia, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. To learn more, visit www.boehringer-ingelheim.us.
1 Caixeta L. Prevention and treatment of milk fever. University of Minnesota Extension, College of Veterinary Medicine. 2019. Available at:
https://extension.umn.edu/dairy-milking-cows/hypocalcemia. Accessed February 19, 2020.
2 Ospina PA, McArt JA, Overton TR, et al. Using non-esterified fatty acids and
β-hydroxybutyrate concentrations during the transition period for herd-level monitoring of increased risk of disease and decreased reproductive and milking performance. Vet Clin North Am Food Anim Pract 2013;29(2):387–412.
3 McArt JA, Neves RC. Association of transient, persistent or delayed subclinical hypocalcemia with early-lactation disease, removal and milk yield in Holstein cows. J Dairy Sci 2019;103(1):690–701.