Dairy feed management during the transition period

12-12-2022 | |
It is critical to monitor the nutritional needs during each stage of transition; far-off dry cows, close-up dry cows, and fresh dairy cows. Photo: Koos Groenewold
It is critical to monitor the nutritional needs during each stage of transition; far-off dry cows, close-up dry cows, and fresh dairy cows. Photo: Koos Groenewold

Proper feed management during transition period is essential for maximum economic return in intensive dairy production systems.

Profitable dairy operations strike a balance between high production, good health and welfare, and efficacious reproduction. 21 days prior to and 21 days after calving are considered a critical physiological stage in the dairy cattle production cycle.

Stepwise feeding programme

Starting the transition period in a stepwise feeding programme increases dry matter intake, reduces the time that cows are in negative energy balance, decreases body weight change in early lactation, minimises metabolic disorders, and optimises milk yield and reproduction performance.

The importance of transition period

The transition period refers to the process of drying, calving, and then producing milk and it is defined as the time between 60 days prior to and 60 days after calving. The most critical physiological stage within this period is the 21 days before and after calving due to high incidence of metabolic disorders and infectious diseases during this period.

Nutrition balance

The calorie needs of a lactating cow are greater than those of a dry cow; thus, the metabolic stress associated with the increased energy demand is significant after calving. The metabolic stress during the transition period impacts production performance, health, and fertility rate of the dairy herd. In addition, the nutrient requirement enhances during the transition period to support fetal growth and colostrum and milk production.

  • Low body condition score at calving affects milk yield persistency and reproductive performance.

  • High body condition score predisposes dairy cows to ketosis, displaced abomasum, dystocia, retained placenta, uterine infections, and cystic ovaries.

  • Milk fever due to low blood calcium and grass tetany due to low blood magnesium decrease rumen contractions, and enhance the susceptibility to displaced abomasum, depressed uterine contractions, delayed uterine involution, and increased days open.

Therefore, monitoring dairy cows during this period is essential to detect disruptions in performance and metabolic disorders, and to prevent involuntary culling during this time.

2 groups of dry cows

It is recommended to separate, manage, and feed dry cows in 2 groups:

  1. Far-off dry cow group,

  2. Close-up dry cow group,

Due to the difference in the nutritional needs of the dry cows during the first 30 days versus the last 21 days of the dry period. The far-off dry cow group includes cows from the dry-off day until 21 days of expected calving date. The close-up dry cow group includes cows within 21 days of expected calving.

Nutritional needs of far-off dry cows

Far-off dry cows consume 1.8-2% of their body weight as dry matter. It is recommended to feed long-stemmed grass hay containing 11-12% crude protein with less than 7% calcium and less than 1.5% potassium. The amount of corn silage needs to be restricted to 2-2.26 g (4.5-5.5 lbs) dry matter per cow per day because feeding excessive corn silage predisposes dry cows to displaced abomasum and fat cow syndrome. The amount of haylage needs to be limited to 2.27-4.5 g (5-10 lbs) per cow per day. High roughage or forage diets are fed at the rate of 2% of the cow body weight. Long-stemmed forages such as hay, baleage, or pasture comprise 50% of the total forage intake, or 1% of the cow body weight.

Far-off dry cows should be supplemented with adequate amounts of grains, protein, energy, minerals, and vitamins to provide the needed nutrients and to minimise health problems around freshening time. Supplementing selenium, vitamins A and E, iodine, copper, zinc, and calcium prevent retained placenta and improve immune response.

Nutritional needs of close-up dry cows

2 to 3 weeks prior to calving, dry matter intake decreases 5% per week and by a total of 30% the last 3 to 5 days prior to calving. Forages need to provide less than 0.7% calcium and less than 0.35% phosphorous in total ration dry matter per day and the calcium: phosphorus ratio needs to be at 2:1 or lower. It is recommended to limit alfalfa and to introduce corn silage and/or haylage to the close-up dry cow diet. Feeding close-up dry cows grains up to 0.5% of body weight for cows in good body condition and up to 0.75% of body weight for cows below the optimum body condition prepares rumen wall and ruminal microbiota for the forthcoming high-grain ration. Concentrates should be restricted to 50% of the dry matter or a maximum of 4.9g (11 lbs) per cow per day.

Nutritional needs of fresh dairy cows

To formulate the ration for fresh dairy cows the minimum protein requirements, maximum energy, and balanced carbohydrate and protein fractions need to be considered. It is important to strive for peak feed intake as soon as possible and to monitor feed intake when feed ingredients are changed. High-quality forage with adequate fibre levels and effective length, no less than 40% of total dry matter intake is required for fresh dairy cows. Ration moisture needs to be limited to 50% when wet fermented feeds are used for fresh dairy cows. Feeding dairy cows several times a day stimulates appetite and encourages maximum dry matter intake. Free access to fresh, clean, warm water and to fresh, palatable feed especially during cold weather and, feeding total mixed ration with the correct forage: concentrate ratio enhance dry matter and water intake and provide adequate fibre for a healthy rumen. Furthermore, supplementing 4.5-5.5 pounds of long-stem, high-quality hay 2-4 weeks after calving promotes dry matter intake.

Concluding remarks

Transition period is an important stage in the production cycle of dairy cow and appropriate feed management during this phase is essential to prevent metabolic disorders and infectious diseases, to optimise productivity, and to maximise herd profitability. It is critical to monitor the nutritional needs for each of far-off dry cows, close-up dry cows, and fresh dairy cows separately to achieve the best possible outcome. In addition, further research is required to establish a robust consistent system to collect, analyse and interpret herd records, and to detect disruptions in the performance of high producing cows caused by nutrition deficiencies in the intensive dairy production systems.

This article is based on the publication: Feeding and Managing the Transition Dairy Cow, J. W. Schroeder, Ph.D. Extension Dairy Specialist, North Dakota State University Fargo.

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Samaneh Azarpajouh Author, veterinarian