Detecting Transition Cow Problems

June 8, 2020

Virginia A Ishler

The past few months COVID-19 has taken center stage in affecting everyone’s way of life. However, even during these tumultuous times the basics of production agriculture need to be followed. Normalcy will return and positioning the dairy herd to be ready is key.

The transition period is one of the most critical time frames in a cow’s production cycle. Setting her up to succeed requires attention the few weeks prior to freshening and the weeks post calving. The DHIA 202 summary report contains some helpful information to determine if a problem is occurring. As summer approaches and the known effects heat stress has on cows, it is worth tracking certain metrics to make sure fresh cows are performing adequately.

Overall production problems can usually be traced back to the dry/transition period. It is helpful to know if that is really the issue before drilling down to solve the problem. If a herd is experiencing low milk yield and low milk fat or low milk yield and normal milk fat, then the culprit may be the transition period. Table 1 lists the guidelines to determine if a herd is high or low risk for a transition cow problem. This information would be pulled from the “Stage of Lactation Profile” table on the DHIA 202 summary report. If two out of the three criteria are met in the high-risk category, then there is enough evidence to investigate the transition period further. This would include checking the following:

  1. body condition score at dry off and at post fresh

  2. ration compliance with the formulated diet; and

  3. adequate bunk space greater than 30 inches per cow.

1Low risk for transition cow problems; high risk for transition cow problems.

Milk production in the first 40 and 100 days can provide insight into how animals are performing after freshening. The “Stage of Lactation Profile” table reflects what is happening currently. Always check how many animals were tested in the first 40 days in lactation group. This is important for small herds because the values may represent a very limited number of cows, i.e. one, two, or three animals and not be reflective of the herd. First lactation animals should average between 60 to 65 pounds of milk in the first 40 days. If this group is not meeting that goal, then the heifer raising program should be evaluated.

Milk components can provide additional information on why animals are not performing well. If milk fat in the first 40 days exceeds 4.6 percent and there is a substantial drop in the 41 to 100 days in milk group, this may indicate cows are losing body condition and dry matter intake and energy may not be adequate. Over conditioned cows at calving and ketosis could be culprits.

In situations where cows start off with milk fat less than 3.4 percent and the next 41 to 100 days in milk show a continued reduction, cows may have freshened too thin. If dry matter and energy intake are compromised, then both volume and components may be negatively impacted. Monitoring this data monthly should help detect problems earlier so a successful solution can be implemented quickly.

Economic perspective:

Monitoring must include an economic component to determine if a management strategy is working or not. For the lactating cows, income over feed cost is a good way to check that feed costs are in line with the level of milk production. Starting with July 2014’s milk price, income over feed cost was calculated using average intake and production for the last six years from the Penn State dairy herd. The ration contained 63% forage consisting of corn silage, haylage, and hay. The concentrate portion included corn grain, candy meal, sugar, canola meal, roasted soybeans, Optigen, and a mineral vitamin mix. All market prices were used.

Also included are the feed costs for dry cows, springing heifers, pregnant heifers, and growing heifers. The rations reflect what has been fed to these animal groups at the Penn State dairy herd. All market prices were used.

Income over feed cost using standardized rations and production data from the Penn State dairy herd.

Note: April’s Penn State milk price: $15.62/cwt; feed cost/cow: $6.43; average milk production: 84 lbs.

Feed cost/non-lactating animal/day.