Center for Animal Health and Productivity

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Management of the Transition Cow

Dr. L. E. Chase
Department of Animal Science
Cornell University

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The transition period is a critical determinant of both productivity and profitability in a dairy herd. Nutrition and management programs during this phase directly affect the incidence of postcalving disorders, milk production and reproduction in the subsequent lactation. Nutritional strategies and guidelines are outlined in other papers in this symposia.

The transition period imposes a number of abrupt changes on the cow. The cessation and initiation of lactation is one example. The cow will also experience as many as 4 ration shifts during this period. She may be subjected to location and social group moves. Rapid changes in both hormonal and metabolic systems must occur. All of these tend to increase the level of stress in the cow during this period. The stress response mechanism in ruminants is a complex, multifaceted system (1,2). Nutrition and management alterations provide an opportunity to minimize the effects of stress.

A key challenge for veterinarians is to educate dairy producers to devote adequate resources in terms of labor, facilities and management to implement a structured transition cow program. One approach is to build an economic basis for this approach. It is generally accepted that a good dry cow program will result in an additional 1,000 to 2,000 lbs of milk in the next lactation. At least a portion of this production response is due to a decrease in postcalving disorders.

Recent work from the University of Illinois (3) assists in quantifying this point. This study examined the relationships between disorders, dry matter intake and milk production. In this study, 48 cows in the university herd were monitored for the first 20 days of lactation. Average daily milk production for this 20 day period was 65 lbs. Postcalving events monitored wre milk fever, retained placenta, metritis, ketosis (KET), displaced abomasum (DA) and mastitis. Twenty-four cows had at least one of the listed events during this period. Dry matter intake of cows with any of the above events was significantly lower than those cows with no problems. The 305 day ME-milk production was extrapolated for each cow at 60 days of lactation. Cows with any of the above events produced 19,738 lbs of milk compared with 20,780 lbs for cows with no problems. Cows which experienced DA/KET had an average milk yield of 18,901 lbs of milk. These differences in milk production represent only a fraction of the total ecenomic cost of postcalving disorders.

An additional consideration is the interactions which occur between disorders. A path analysis approach was used to examine these relationships in 31 commercial herds (4). Cows with milk fever had 4 times more risk of retained placenta and 24 times more ketosis than cows which did not have milk fever. The risk of complicated ketosis was elevated in cows which had either a retained placenta, DA or milk fever.

The incidence rate of postcalving disorders in high producing herds was recently surveyed (5). A total of 61 Holstein herds with an average production of 24,412 lbs of milk were used. Average herd size was 244 cows. The reported incidence rates were:

  • Retained placenta = 9%
  • Milk fever = 7.2%
  • DA = 3.3%
  • Ketosis = 3.7%
  • Downer cows = 1.1%

These incidence levels imply that high producing herds can have relatively low rates of postcalving disorders. Field observations of high producing herds tends to confirm these survey results. How do these herd managers achieve this?

The challenge is to design a management program for the transition cow to minimize postcalving disorders, maximize dry matter intake and milk production. This can be done once an understanding of the changes which occur during this phase is in place. The following points need to be considered as a transition cow management program is developed.

1. Dry period length - The optimum dry period length for high producing herds is not well defined. Current recommendations are for a 50-70 day dry period. A study in Denmark evaluated planned dry periods of 4, 7 and 10 weeks (6). Eight commercial herds with lactation yields between 13,300 and 19,600 lbs of milk were used. A decrease of 6.2 lbs of 4% FCM in the first 84 days of lactation was observed when a 4 week dry period was compared with a 7 week period. Cows with a 10 week dry period produced about 1.1 lbs more milk than those with a 7 week dry period. Jones (7) evaluated dry period length using Northeast DHIA data. Average days dry for first lactation cows was 55 days while it was 65 days for second and greater lactation cows. The data was also sorted by rolling herd average (RHA).

RHA, lbs milk (x1,000) 1st lact. 2nd+ lact.
------( days dry )-------
<16 58 67
16 - 18 56 65
18 - 20 56 64
20 - 22 55 63
22 - 24 55 62
>24 54 60

This information indicates that days dry are lower in high producing herds. First calf heifers also consistently have fewer dry days. This data reflects what is happening on commercial dairy herds. It does not provide data to define the optimum dry period length.

2. Dry matter intake - The depression in dry matter intake (DMI) in the late dry period and early lactation has been well documented (8,9,10,11). The reduction in DMI during the last week prepartum may be 30% (8). Feed intake postcalving doesn't peak until 9-13 weeks of lactation (11). Dry matter intake in the first week postcalving is about 65% of maximum DMI (11). This depressed early lactation DMI is accounted for by the NRC (12). These changes in DMI need to be accounted for in ration formulation to provide adequate nutrient intake. Adjustments in ration nutrient density will be needed to compensate for the depressed DMI in these periods. This low DMI in early lactation cows may limit the rate at which concentrate feeding can be increased postcalving.

3. Feeding behavior - Feedbunk space and social dominance both impact meal patterns and total DMI. The postcalving cow moved into a new group needs to establish her ranking in the peck order. This move may be especially difficult for the first lactation heifers when they are put in groups containing older cows. At the same time, many of these cows may still be slightly weak and less able to compete. It appears logical to assume that any restriction in feedbunk space or availability of feed would be a negative factor in allowing the fresh cow to come on feed rapidly. Housing these cows in a special fresh cow group should minimize competition at this critical time. The receiving pen in feedlots is another example of a special grouping used as a management tool to minimize stress.

4. Hormonal and metabolite shifts - The cow goes from lactating to nonlactating and back to lactating in a relatively short period of time. This requires major adjustments within the cow (10,13). As an example, glucose needs imcrease about 2.7 times between late pregnancy and the first few days of lactation (13).

5. Rumen mucosa - It has long been known that a relationship between feed types and rumen mucosal development exists. Propionic and butyric acids are keys to mucosal development and structure. A report from Germany examined changes in rumen mucosa in transition cows (14). A reduction in total absorptive surface area occurred as cows were moved to the high forage dry cow ration. When cows were shifted to a high energy ration 14 days before calving, a mucosal proliferation process began. It took 4-5 weeks for the mucosa to attain maximum absorptive capacity.

6. Immune system - A number of nutrients interact with the immune system in the body. Plasma levels of vitamin A, vitamin E and zinc all decreased in the last 2 weeks before calving (15). Similar trends in vitamin E and selenium were noted in unsupplemented dairy cows between dry off and calving (16). These trends indicate a lower immune system status as the dairy cow approaches parturition. Vitamin E has direct effects on the activity of both lymphocytes and neutrophils.

The information described above provides a base for the development of a transition cow management program. Key points can be outlined for specific portions of this phase of the lactation cycle. However, there are 3 key words that sum up the overall approach for this period. These are STRESS MANAGEMENT, OBSERVATION and REACTION.

  1. Dry-off
    • Abrupt changes may be needed here to enhance the cessation of milk synthesis.
    • Most recommendations suggest discontinuing milking abruptly.
    • Dry cow treatment should be done at this time.
    • Observation of the cow and udder for the first few days is critical.
    • The feeding program will normally shift to high forage.
    • Restrict water only if necessary.
    • A change of physical facilities or location may be beneficial.
  2. Early dry period
    • Provide a balanced ration.
    • The goal is to maintain body condition in the dry period.
    • The cow should gain weight due to fetal growth.
    • Feed a bulky forage to keep the rumen expanded and working.
    • Avoid high K forages ( > 2.5% K ).
    • Limit corn silage to about 1/2 of the forage dry matter.
    • Provide adequate feedbunk space, feed availability and water.
    • Some exercise may be helpful to maintain muscle tone.
    • Clean, dry environment.
  3. Close-up period ( last 3 weeks )
    • Adjust ration density for lower DMI.
    • It may be good to bring in some of the postcalving forages or feeds to minimize palatability problems.
    • Limit grain to 0.5 - 1% of bodyweight.
    • Vitamin E - selenium injection if needed.
    • Avoid poorly fermented silages.
    • Clean, dry environment.
  4. Calving
    • Clean, dry environment.
    • Be there to observe the calving process.
    • Assist if needed but don't get overanxious.
    • Don't use excessive force when assisting.
    • Avoid smooth or slippery floors.
    • Offer the cow water and a highly palatable feed (hay, calf starter ).
    • The key is to get the cow eating, drinking and ruminating.
  5. Fresh cows
    • Observe chewing and rumination activity.
    • Some producers are taking body temperatures once or twice a day on these cows.
    • Make sure fresh, palatable feeds are available.
    • Water should always be available.
    • A seperate area to house these cows is preferable. The primary reason for this is the ability to frequently observe these cows.
    • Avoid crowded, competitive environments.
    • Clean, dry environment.
    • The first 1 - 2 weeks postcalving set the stage for the entire lactation. Observation and reaction are the management keys during this time.
    • Don't incease concentrate feeding too rapidly. The daily increase in DMI in the first week is about .6 lbs/day for older cows (11).

These suggestions are designed to minimize stress on the cow during the transition period. The goal is to get the postcalving cow on feed as rapidly as possible. This requires a nutrition and management program which minimizes postcalving disorders. The basics of stress management, observation and reaction are relatively simple. The ability of the manager to implement these will have a significant impact on profitability and productivity. It is our challenge to assist dairy producers in adapting these principles to their specific situation.


  1. Hutcheson,D.P. 1990. Effect of nutrition on stress of ruminants. Proc. 51st Minn. Nutr. Conf. Bloomington, MN p.119.
  2. Nockels,C.F. 1994. Understanding stress in cattle. Proc. 10th Alltech Symp. Nicholasville, KY. p.255.
  3. Wallace,R.,G.C.McCoy,T.Overton and J.H.Clark. 1996. Effect of metabolic diseases on dry matter consumption and production parameters. Univ. of Illinois. Personal communication.
  4. Curtis,C.R.,H.N.Erb,C.J.Sniffen.R.D.Smith and D.S. Kronfeld. 1985. Path analysis of dry period nutrition, postpartum metabolic and reproductive disorders and mastitis in Holstein cows. J. Dairy Sci. 68:2347.
  5. Jordan,E.R. and R.H.Fourdraine. 1993. Characterization of the management practices of the top milk producing herds in the country. J. Dairy Sci. 76:3247.
  6. Sorensen,J.T. and C.Enevoldsen. 1991. Effect of dry period length on milk production in subsequent lactation. J. Dairy Sci. 74:1277.
  7. Jones,L.R. 1993. Benchmarks and goals for NeDHIA data. Anim. Sci. Mimeo 159. Dept. of Animal Sci., Cornell Univ. Ithaca, NY.
  8. Bertics,S.J.,R.R.Grummer,C.Cadoringa-Valino and E.E. Stoddard. 1992. Effect of prepartum dry matter intake on liver triglyceride concentration and early lactation. J. Dairy Sci. 75:1914.
  9. Grant,R.J. and J.L.Albright. 1995. Feeding behavior and management factors during the transition period in dairy cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 73:2791.
  10. Grummer,R.R. 1995. Impact of changes in organic nutrient metabolism on feeding the transition cow. J. Anim. Sci. 73:2820.
  11. Kertz,A.F., L.F.Reutzel and G.M.Thomson. 1991. Dry matter intake from parturition to midlactation. J. Dairy Sci. 74:2290.
  12. National Research Council. 1989. Nutrient requirements of dairy cattle. 6th rev.ed. Natl. Acad. Sci., Washington,DC.
  13. Bell,A.W. 1995. Regulation of organic nutrient metabolism during transition from late pregnancy to early lactation. J. Anim. Sci. 73:2804.
  14. Dirksen,G.U.,H.G.Liebich and E.Mayer. 1985. Adaptive changes of the ruminal mucosa and their functional and clinical significance. The Bovine Practitioner. 20:16.
  15. Goff,J.P. and J.R.Strobel. 1990. Decreased plasma retinol, alpha-tocopherol and zinc concentration during the periparturient period:Effect of milk fever. J. Dairy Sci. 73:3195.
  16. Weiss,W.P.,D.A.Todhunter,J.S.Hogan and K.L.Smith. 1990. Effect of duration of supplementation of selenium and vitamin E on periparturient dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 73:1387.