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Dairy Cattle Management: LOST in Transition

If you were going on a driving holiday … It’s unlikely that you would wait to see your aunt’s holiday album or your sibling’s gas receipts at the end of the trip, before planning your best route.  Trying to plan by waiting for information that hasn`t yet happened or that isn’t yet available to you, is ineffective to say the least.  And yet when we’re trying to get cows from A-Z on the dairy journey, we use information like peak milk and butter fat tests that have little or no value for immediate decision making. Even worse – we let culling rates be the measure of our success.  In our travel analogy, that would be like using number of speeding tickets to determine your destination. While the information is related to the issue and cautionary, it does little to help determine the details of where you are going.

The Transition Cow Journey Needs Clear Signposts

We all know what a transition cow is but do we know what to provide her with in that pre- and post- calving period that is so crucial to her productive and reproductive success?  A survey by Dairy Australia provides thought-provoking statistics.  The survey found that only 65% of farmers use transition cow management and, of those ones using it, only 50% have a management plan in place that meets the cow’s nutritional needs. In other words, only 1/3 of the cows are getting the right treatment.  Furthermore, it means that staff is spending too much time and energy dealing with sick cows.  Not only is this a negative situation from the cow health viewpoint, but it also means that attention is being sidetracked from the needs of the whole herd.

The Transition Journey Needs A Planned Road Trip

There are important questions that must be answered:  

  • Do you know where you`re going?
  • Do you have the information to get there?
  • Are you willing to follow directions?

Five mis-used and over-rated sources of Transition Management:

Check off the ones you are using on your herd as action items.

  • Peak Milk Yield
  • Herd Production Level
  • First Test Day Percent Butter Fat
  • First Test Day Linear SCC
  • Calving Interval

If you’re using any of these you are definitely driving in the wrong direction.  Yes you have information.  But it cannot be used in a timely and effective way!

Are You Ready to Put the Pedal to the Transition Metal?

On the one hand, using the wrong tools is a problem.  On the other hand, not taking action is an even bigger problem. The above tests cannot be used to initiate actions.  The solution of using information for culling purposes does not solve problems such as milk fever, displaced abomasums and low dry matter intake or raise the level of health.  The other problem is timing.   Identifying a problem is great but getting it solved quickly is the priority.

Too Little. Too Late.

The lag time of most of the previously listed monitors is far too long and late. If you don`t take the proper early steps to get your cows through the transition period, you may not have the chance later.  Rather than getting rid of cows, get rid of transition monitors that aren`t working.  By the time you`ve decided to cull a cow, the outcome has been decided.  What is needed are tools that give you the chance to take action, before you have lost time, money and milk production.

Peak Milk has Shortcomings

As a monitor of fresh cow performance, peak milk has at least 5 shortcomings.

  1. It is not the true peak milk.  The reported number is the highest milk produced on any given test day so far during the current lactation. The odds that the test day will coincide with the actual peak milk day for a particular cow are slim. Furthermore Age at freshening, Lactation number, Calving season, Breed of cow, area of country and herd production level all have impact on peak milk. It is impossible to make these adjustments mentally.
  2. It`s too slow. Can you really afford to wait somewhere between 50-90 DIM to learn what a particular cow’s peak milk is?  This lag between the information and the time to take action is far too long. Prompt decisions are needed from all perspectives: cow health; production management and profitability.
  3. It`s simply an average. Averages are often considered useful as benchmarks to measure progress.  However an average that does not indicate the range of values has little of no use in managing the transition of individual animals.  You want to be able to take action regarding the cows that are at the low end.  The high end has particular needs as well that an average doesn`t identify.
  4. It includes more than recently fresh animals. Again it is the breadth of the information that limits its effectiveness in transition cow management. Peak milk measurements often include more than the recently fresh animals thus clouding the information for use in actionable decision making.
  5. It is biased because of cows that have been culled. To earn a peak milk record, a cow must survive in the herd past a second or third test.  Thus cows that left the herd prior to peak milk or ones that are currently in first test are excluded and thus the results are biased.

First Test-Day Percent Butter Fat has Limited Value

Whether higher or lower than normal butterfat tests do not accurately identify the state of the cow’s health.  Butter fat tests can be a moving and therefore a single test day doesn`t identify the direction of the trend.

  1. Higher than “normal” butterfats in individual cows is often a sign of metabolic difficulties. These cows usually are in a state of extremely rapid weight loss. They often have a history of metabolic problems such as ketosis, fatty liver, and/or displaced abomasum.
  2. Lower than “normal” butterfats in individual cows is often a sign of past metabolic difficulties, low body condition score, acidosis, or some combination of the three. These cows usually are very thin. In many cases, these cows are 20-30 days in milk at first test. It is possible that many of these cows would have been quite high if tested at day 8-15, but now are low since essentially no more body fat is available to be lost into the milk.

This likely under-reports problems in cows that are dropping from a “high” to a “low” test as they would not be distinguishable from “normal” cows.

First Test-Day Linear SCC May be Too Late

Unpublished data currently being evaluated suggest animals starting with a higher linear SCC (>4.0) produce 1,000-1,500 pounds less in the coming lactation when compared to cows freshening with lower linear SCC. In addition, recent reports suggest that cows with mastitis in early lactation have lower reproductive performance.  A cow culled in the first month of lactation is a far more expensive economic event than a cow that is replaced at the end of lactation.

Some estimate that the cow value drops about $3 per day after freshening for cows that do not become pregnant. Waiting for a year to see how many cows died from mastitis is a poor way to monitor either clinical or sub-clinical mastitis. Relevant action to take regarding high SCC starts at the drying off period of a previous lactation or at calving for heifers.

So, if those DON’T work, what OPTION is left??

It is easy to find numerous superior tools for monitoring a problem on a dairy.  The first test of the monitor should be that it either highlights another question or leads directly to a required management action.  The herd manager’s interest isn’t in the animals already identified for culling but rather to find those animals where some positive steps can be taken to achieve a positive outcome.  The goal is to move from useless information to useful actions.  Once you have identified the problem you can find the solution.

First Test-Day Mature Equivalent 305-day Projected Milk

Using the first Test Day Mature Equivalent is much faster than the limited monitoring methods previously discussed. The first projection is possible after 8 days in milk. Typically, cows are around 15-20 days in milk at first test. Admittedly, this projection is not 100% accurate in predicting the final 305 completed lactation total milk, but it is a good tool nevertheless. A cow starting with a low projection at first test is not likely to finish with an excellent total at the end of 305 days and is much more likely to be culled.

All DHIs and most on-farm herd management software offers projections of the expected lactation total 305 day milk production. A mature equivalent (ME) projection or Breed Class Average (BCA) further refines this prediction by adjusting all cows to the same age to allow comparison between cows in different lactations.

The ADVANTAGES of 305 day ME Projections

Compared to peak milk, the first test-day 305 day ME projection offers these advantages:

  • Measurement can be made starting at day 8, gaining 45-60 days on lag time.
  • Bias due to culled cow exclusion, although still present, is less.
  • Effect of different test-day days-in-milk is removed.
  • Cows freshening at different ages can be compared one to another.
  • Cows in different lactation numbers can be compared.
  • Cows freshening in different seasons can be compared.
  • Cows freshening in different areas of the country can be compared.
  • Different breeds can be compared.
  • Adjustment is made for herd productivity.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Getting the right information is the absolute first step if you’re going to properly manage your cattle through the pre-transition and post-transition periods.  It’s crucial for cow health and dairy profitability to be proactive.  If you are not using information that can clearly define what actions to take, you’re program and your profits and your cows will be lost in transition.  It’s time to take a YOU-TURN and map out where you are and where you’re going.  Don’t let stop signs determine your destination.



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