Foresight and hindsight are terms that are most often applied to strategic planning. When it comes to post calving transition, let’s consider them in the absolute sense meaning the “sight” your cows present post calving.

In this third part of our series on Transition Management, we are looking at the final stage. You are to be commended if you are already thinking, “The most important decisions I make for my fresh cows happen long before she calves out” or even before that when we set up our transition management program.” (Read more: Are Your Cows Ready For Their Close Up? and Dairy Cattle Management: LOST in Transition) That is so true but there are critical steps that must be acted upon to fulfil the post calving needs of your fresh cow too. Until cows and walls and stalls talk, your information must come from observation.  

Observation doesn’t simply mean a quick check from across the barn, pen or pasture.  What is needed is a full 360 degree close-up otherwise something important may be overlooked.  Whatever you miss at this time could make the crucial difference between a successful lactation or it could mean culling the cow or, in the worst case scenario, death. The goal is to take what you see and apply it to a transition program that will make sure that fresh cows eat well and enter their lactation without health or metabolic issues such as metritis, mastitis, milk fever, ketosis or fatty liver. This is a situation where you can be assured that what you don’t see will definitely hurt you.

Setting Your Sightlines

Because the calving pen is an area of elevated stress and high turnover, it is important to set goals and corresponding benchmarks, in order to achieve the best outcomes.  If benchmarks do not exist, set reasonable goals.

  • The first goal is to have nothing in the calving pen for longer than 24 hours. Longer stays result in dramatic increases in problems.
  • Milk Fever: 1%. Mature cows 2%. Seek help if over 3%.
  • Displaced abomasums. Less than 1% of all calvings.  Seek help if 12%.
  • Retained placenta.  Less than 8% of all calvings. Seek help if 10% or more.
  • Body Condition. During the first 30 days in milk, cows should not lose more than ¼ point body condition (120 lbs. body weight). This can have a huge effect on first service conception rate (50%).
  • Culling:  Aim for less than 5% culling during the first 60 days in milk (DIM).

Improving your herd results on even one of these areas, could have a positive impact on the health of your cattle and your bottom line, while improving the day to day effectiveness of our cow care.

Fresh Cow Protocols Need the Right People and Protocols

Everyone who assists with calving should have training and possess the confidence to handle all pre and post calving protocols.  Differences in how these protocols are carried out may cause problems.  Even small details can have a positive or negative effect on your fresh cow program. Make sure that none of the following are overlooked:  access to fresh water; immediate and plentiful access to high quality forage;  attention to calving hygiene; follow-up if there has been calving trauma; consistently calm handling and dry, clean bedding at all times.

CSI: Cow Scene Investigations

You can’t fix what you don’t know is wrong. Every single dairy worker that interacts with the cattle must be trained to identify potentially sick cows. However, identifying them is only the beginning. The observations must be recorded. This enables a list of cows to examine or a system that flags which cows need an action.  Recording of calving date, difficulties, disease findings and other relevant information needs to be maintained and accessible for decision making.  Early identification and prompt treatment has a positive impact on the health and welfare of the fresh cow and also on culling and loss of production.

Note the Obvious First

There are obvious events in fresh cow transition management that must trigger immediate action.

  1. Down cow
  2. Difficult calving
  3. Twins
  4. Extremely fat cows at calving
  5. Obvious discomfort of difficulty moving.

Foresight: It’s What’s Up Front that Counts

Having dealt with the obvious or emergency symptoms it’s time to look closer at the following areas:

  • Appetite:  Note if cows are not eating, sorting or are not interested in feed at all. Check for undisturbed feed remaining in front of the cow at lock up.  Before releasing cows from lockups, check for cows that have eaten less than their neighbors.
  • Attitude: Healthy animals are aware of their surroundings.  Their ears are moving and they show curiosity.  Sick animals tend to have their heads down, droopy ears, dull eyes and are too tired to groom their noses. Cows that are depressed react slowly to stimulus.
  • Eyes:  Cows whose eyes appear sunken, dull or crusty may be dehydrated, or in pain, or both.  Note if there are visible eye lesions, pink eye or trauma.
  • Ears: Sick animals have ears that are droopy.  This could indicate that she is depressed, in pain or has a fever. Cold ears indicate decreased blood flow to the periphery which could be related to milk fever, acidosis or sever toxicity.
  • Nose: Abnormal discharge (white, green, yellow or bloody)may indicate pneumonia or acidosis. When sick cows don’t clean their noses and will have feed particles and nasal discharge sticking to their noses. It is also important to check if the nostrils appear dry, as this may indicate fever.
  • Cough ; Cows who are coughing repeatedly should be noted for observation.

Hindsight:  Don’t Be Blindsided by the Backside

  • Abnormal Udder: Excessive udder swelling strongly suggests the need for revision of the dry cow feed program and perhaps that cows are not getting enough exercise.
  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea can be a symptom of improperly balanced dry cow ration or moldy feed.
  • Lameness: Lameness usually indicates that feet need cared for or that cows are having to walk and stand in wet manure.
  • Manure: Check the floor, vulva and tail for abnormal manure: too loose to form a pile; almost black in color and or foul smelling.  These indicate cows may be suffering from acidosis, digestive upsets, toxic disease or enteritis.
  • Retained Fetal membranes: Retained fetal membranes are not a health problem per se, but increase the risk for metritis.  If you find retained fetal membranes, you should also look for abnormal vaginal discharge.
  • Vaginal discharge: It is normal to find vaginal discharge for up to two weeks after calving.  However, dark red and foul smelling vaginal discharges are found in cases of uterine infection.
  • Abnormal abdomen: Cows with their left flank tucked in have poor rumen fill because of anorexia.  If the abdomen is distended, cows may be bloated due to rumen gas accumulation.
  • Breathing rate: The basal respiration rate is 12 to 36 breaths per minute.  Note if the animal has abnormal respiration rate or if inspiration and/or expiration require additional efforts, pneumonia, bloat and toxic diseases may be causing the difficulty breathing.

Take ACTION.  Fix the PROBLEM. Avoid causing New Ones.

After thorough observation, all is lost if the appropriate action is not taken.  Quiet handling of fresh cows is the first step in moving them into a healthy lactation. If a fresh cow is on the identified list, the appropriate action must be taken. For those without specific health needs, all quarters should be milk out using good technique and consistent protocols. Poor methods here could cause problems.  Here too is the place to make sure that correct diet has been formulated post calving.  The grain feeding rate of each freshly calved cow is ramped up gradually over the first 5-7 days post calving.  Many dairy operations are considering or have installed individual cow ID feeding systems.  A fresh cow requires many nutritional components.  Consulting with veterinary or nutritional consultants can take into consideration many variables including fresh feed availability, facilities, stocking density and handling expertise to name a few.

The Benefits of a Well-Conceived Transition Program.

There are two main facts to keep in mind.  Fresh cows have the greatest production potential in a dairy. Having said that, fresh cows are very susceptible to diseases. Therefore, losses associated with illness, lameness or injuries are expensive.  It is worth noting that 15% to 25% of all cullings take place during the first 60 DIM. If these losses can be reduced or eliminated, there are distinct financial rewards.  Every step in transition is important but don’t let down at the end.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

By applying foresight, hindsight and attention to detail regarding all aspects of fresh cow management, the dairy manger will, at worst, end up with a list of shortcomings  or, at best, find an incisive way of making proactive decisions.  Either way the new insights are well worth it.  Foresight? Hindsight?  It’s time you looked at cows from all sides now! Set your sights on success!


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