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Technologies Tackle the Big Three in Transition Cows

Tyler Bramble

The transition period is a critical and demanding phase for dairy cows and is associated with an increased risk for diseases and body condition loss. Technology can help to get the transition right.


The transition period of dairy cows encompasses the three weeks before and the three weeks after calving (parturition). This is a period where cows need to be extra monitored and pampered to ensure that they remain healthy throughout the dry period, have a successful calving, have enough energy for a good onset of the lactation and are in good condition for the next breeding. For large dairies, camera technology helps to make the transition period a smooth and successful one.


“24/7 monitoring of things like lying time is crucial to make sure that cow comfort, feed management and stocking density are under control. Farmers have access to this data now and this gives peace of mind to know that transition cows do well,” explains Tyler Bramble from Cainthus.


The big three issues in transition cows are:


1. Feed: Feed Intake and Feed Space

Managing feed intake is very important for transition cows. During the transition period, the cow has a high demand for energy and nutrients to support fetal growth and colostrum and milk production after calving. At the same time, feed intake levels often drop. This can result in a negative energy balance and nutrient deficiencies, coupled with immunosuppression. A drop in immunity and resilience can increase the risk for metabolic disorders (such as milk fever), udder infections and reproductive disorders.


Early detection of these problems is key to preventing future milk production losses. Encouraging feed intake is therefore one of the most important goals of transition cow management. To maximize feed intake, feed availability and feed quality are the main things to consider. Additionally important is bunk space, pen space and water availability’s impact on feed intakes (source: University of Minnesota).

2. Cow Comfort: Pampering to the Max

Provision of feed and water at all times is a crucial part of cow comfort during the transition period. Minimizing social stress or the need to establish social rank during the transition period, provision of deeply bedded stalls (straw or sand) and provision of ample space to lie down are essential elements to make sure the welfare of transition cows is respected. Never overstock the most crucial groups: the dry and fresh cows. These groups should have enough places to rest and eat. You should pamper these animals to the max and reduce stress as much as possible.


“Transition cows need more space per cow than other cows, both at the feed bunk and in the rest area. They need to have the best facilities on the farm. Unfortunately, dry cows are often put in the oldest facilities on the farm. In reality, they should be the first group catered to,” Jeffrey Bewley, Dairy Analytics and Innovation Scientist at Holstein Association USA addresses. Cow comfort is even more put to the test in hot regions. A heat-stressed pregnant cow will be impaired when trying to provide the nutrition that their unborn calf needs, causing problems farther down the road. Providing these animals with a comfortable resting area where they can escape the heat, feeding at cooler parts of the day, mainly evening and night and the right diet formulation are essential (Alltech).


3. Cow Behavior: Minimize Regrouping Events

Regrouping - putting all the transition cows together - may result in behavioral changes. Every time an animal is introduced into a new group, she has to adjust to a new social hierarchy. This can have a negative impact on dry matter intake - and associated milk loss - during this critical time. Schirmann et al. (2011) found that moved cows showed greater behavioral changes than cows that remained in the pen and cows that were introduced decreased dry matter intake (DMI). These cows were also replaced more often by other cows at the feeder. Try to limit group changes when adopting more regular group changes, space/stocking rate becomes even more important


Let Technology do the Monitoring

“Early detection of health issues, in combination with controlling cow comfort, stress and feed is key for a successful transition period. The human eye cannot always detect the early signs. But technology can help to detect changes in eating time, lying time, rumination time, or temperature and help us identify these cows sooner, improving our chances of a successful intervention,” Bramble explains.


Bewley addresses that technology can make a difference when it comes to feed management. “Dry matter intake is key to a successful transition, so any technology that can help monitor the feeding process or feeding behavior can benefit transition cows. For example, a reduction in rumination time can help us identify when a cow is off-feed. When we identify this animal, we can provide a drench to help this cow off and slow down the challenges she is dealing with,” he says. In addition, lying time is a useful parameter to identify sick and at-risk cows.


During the transition period, the dairy cow undergoes physiological, metabolic and immunological change. Transition cows need to have the best facilities on the farm and should be the first group catered to. In practice, this is not always the case and when these cows are not properly managed, the transition period can be detrimental for health, welfare and production. Technology will continue to provide new insights into transition cow management allowing us to improve farm profitability and animal well-being.


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