The dairy business isn’t as glamorous as Hollywood, but every cow deserves star treatment for the three weeks before and three weeks after calving. In particular, there is a turning point just before she calves that can make a tremendous difference to the success or failure of her maternal story. At the simplest level how you manage the feeding and housing of close up cows will impact their future health and milk production.  And that affects your profitability. The big picture for your herd and your dairy depends on how you handle getting your cows close up ready.

All the Right Moves!

Ideally cows should remain in the same group throughout the close up period and that group should be established early in the far-off dry cow period.  Although research has suggested that 12 to 24 hours is the perfect time to move cows prior to calving, putting this into actual practice may be easier said than done.  Every operation will look at crowding stressors of up close cows differently based on size, facilities, expense and staff.  Nevertheless the goal of the transition program should be to minimize the number of pen moves or addition of cows to the group. This is based on the reality that the social hierarchy within the group is changed and must be re-established each time new cows are added to the group. Regardless of how you decide to sub-divide your groups, overcrowding should be avoided at all costs.

Cows UN-Interrupted

Research has shown that if social interactions result in excessive-boss cow fighting, milk production could decrease by 3 to 8 lbs milk daily which may not be recovered. When possible, multiple cows, rather than single cows, should be introduced into a group together.  Aim to add new cows only once or twice a week to reduce the social conflict which occurs when cows are establishing the pecking order in a new group.

She Needs a Calving Pen of Her Own

Close-up dry cows and heifers need a clean, dry, and comfortable place to rest.  Each cow should be provided with a minimum of 1 well-bedded freestall (sand is the preferred bedding) or 100 square feet of bedded pack space. Providing adequate resting space is important. Limiting the resting space increases the time cows spend standing and predisposes them to hoof issues and increased incidence of lameness after calving.

Up Close Might Mean Too Close to Diseases

Along with high comfort and the seclusion or isolation that cows seek at calving, the area should also provide the least possible health risk for the dam and her calf.  Especially, avoid manure-borne pathogens from other cows.  Certainly being exposed to longer stays with continual disruptions of newly added herd-mates is less than desirable and appears to increase risks for ketosis and DA. Risk of removal from the herd in early lactation appears to be elevated three-fold. Subclinical milk fever and lower blood calcium content without clinical signs have been associated with higher risks of mastitis, retained placenta, metritis, and displaced abomasums. Thus, providing a clean, dry environment is critical.

Many diseases go undiagnosed at this stage.  These sub-clinical diseases negatively affect the entire upcoming lactation and cause losses in reproductive performance as well as added feed and fixed costs.

Use Your Cow-Sense

Obviously there will be different limitations with every set up.  The skill is to look at things and determine what actions should you take to encourage feed intakes by each close up animal? The ultimate goal is to ensure that all cows have access to enough feed. Avoid overcrowding, aim for enough square feet per cow to enable cows to move around freely and come and go to the feed area confidently.

STOP Over-Conditioning Up-Close Cows

Transition cows that are overconditioned (body condition scores greater than 4.0) eat less before and after calving, with feed intake dropping sooner and to a greater extent before calving than optimally body conditioned pre-fresh cows (BCS 3.5). As a result, these cows mobilize body fat to a greater extent compared to cows where feed intake is not compromised as greatly before calving. This greater mobilization of body fat causes excessive fat to accumulate in the liver of these cows, which further compromises the liver’s ability to make glucose to support milk production. Thus, these cows have a higher likelihood of developing fatty liver and then subclinical or clinical ketosis in addition to other metabolic disorders.

Feed the “Less” Plus “More” Performance Diet

Regardless of where they are once sorted out, it is important that close up cows are within easy monitoring sight of caretakers and with access to fresh feed and water 24/7. About three weeks before their calving date, they should be receiving a transition diet.  The skill is in matching diet to the nutrient needs of the particular close up cow.

Diets for heifers should reflect lower intakes (approximately 23 versus 26 lb/day dry matter intake for mature cows) and the need for additional protein (15% crude protein or 1,200 g/day of metabolizable protein for springing heifers) during the close-up period.

Close-up dry cow diets should contain slightly more energy and metabolizable protein than far-off dry cow diets, but energy density still should be controlled to optimize intake after calving. Mineral balance of dry cow diets is critical to prevent problems after calving. Diets for dry cows 3 weeks before calving often contain lower potassium forages and grain products to allow for formulation of diets that prevent subclinical and clinical milk fever.

Reduce Stresses Pre-Calving

Recognizing that cows are social animals, providing a stress free environment for the actual calving is one of the most strategic things you can do.  There (Rick Grant) are Benefits of separating first calf heifers from mature cows.  Heifers compete better with other heifers and have higher dry matter intakes (10-15% improvement) and longer resting times (20% more) when housed separately from mature cows. When feedbunk space is limited, close-up dry cows may spend more time standing and eat less dry matter or eat larger and fewer meals. To prevent potential problems with lameness and other metabolic disorders after calving, close-up dry cows should be provided with 36 inches/cow of feedbunk space.  Don’t forget how weather impacts cow comfort.  Heat, much more than cold, is a stressor that has negative impact on close up cows.  Again, facilities and handling should reflect the needs of the close up cow. Moving cows once calving has commenced is shown to delay calving.

Is Close-Up Management Worth It?

We have considered the perils of not having a transition plan. (Read more: Dairy Cattle Management: LOST in Transition) By the time the actual calving date arrives, cows are half way through Transition.  There are two steps to success in this Close up stage: 1. Recognize problems early. 2. Take corrective action.  We have merely touched a few of the observation and care taking steps that could be on a checklist for close up transition management. There is always room for improvement and problems big and small that need attention and action.  The question might arise whether or not all this transition effort it is worth it.  Research indicates that there could be five pounds less milk per cow per day as a result of stress, diet, or increased instances of disease.  This equates to milking 92 instead of 100 cows. But that is not all.  Add in extra labor, extra drug costs ,added vet expenses and the losses incurred by early removal of cows from the herd, not to mention unsuccessful future AI breedings and the aggregate losses can soar to $300 less revenue and $200 to $300 additional costs per cow per year.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Regardless of the size of the particular operation, every breeder can use $500 to $600 more profit per cow per year.   Taking corrective action on your Close up Transition cows could be the best investment you ever made.  Are your cows ready for their close up?



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