How Farmers and Advisors Fail Cows in Transition

Pre-calving cows do not have enough space in the stalls and one cow in five boxes (score two or more).

These are just two of the worrying findings of a recent doctoral study on the management of transitional cows by Harper Adams student Emma Redfern.

Ms Redfern conducted 56 interviews with farmers, veterinarians and nutritionists in the Midlands last year to establish the main challenges that occurred during late pregnancy and early lactation.

See also: 6 fresh cow checks to avoid problems after calving

She also performed 22 farm audits on year-round calving herds that were housed, focusing on housing of cows in transition, lameness, body condition, and had the rations analyzed to assess nutrient and mineral content.

The results highlighted some alarming concerns:

  • Where pre-calving cows were kept in stalls, the stalls were too small: the length was 1.8 m instead of a minimum of 1.85-2 m; the width was 1.1 m instead of the recommended 1.22-1.37 m; and the lanyard space was 0.6m instead of 0.7m. “Pre-calving cows are not a priority like dairy cows. They are sometimes placed in dilapidated or inadequate housing, and when the cows are kept in stalls, they are too small, ”says Redfern.
  • One in five cows before calving had a mobility score of two (reduced mobility) or more
  • There was acceptance of over-conditioned dry cows among farmers
  • All minerals except magnesium and selenium were in excess in pre-calving diets (see “Mineral Levels on Year-Round Calving Farms” below.
  • Magnesium did not meet recommendations in more than half of the diets and selenium was deficient in 86% of the rations
  • Many breeders did not record a body condition score (BCS) or metabolic disease and struggled to associate metabolic disease with poor management before calving. This was due to the six week lapse of time during the transition period from making bad decisions to disease in early lactation cows.
  • Most feed reps were reluctant to give advice on the transition period because they did not feel confident and from a business perspective it was not worth selling feed for the cows. dairy.
  • In comparison, independent nutritionists did not hesitate to manage the transition
  • Bulk calving herds had fewer transition problems than year round calving herds because the cows produced less milk and suffered less metabolic stress
  • The top priority of block calving breeders was to keep things simple and low cost
  • Producers with year-round calving herds used advisers / vets more than block calves, who only used them when needed.

Mineral levels fed on calving farms all year round


Recommended level to feed

Average to be fed



3.5 g / kg DM

3.42g / kg DM

1-6.27g / kg DM


0.3 mg / kg DM

0.09 mg / kg DM

0-0.89 mg / kg DM

The copper

12-18mg / kg DM

20.8 mg / kg DM

One farm exceeded the maximum allowable value of double, and another was found to give 79.3 mg in fresh cows


Less than 5g / kg DM

5.66 g / kg DM

3.15-10.1 g / kg DM


Less than 11g / kg DM

13.9 g / kg DM

In some cases, more than 24 g were fed. Range 5.89-24.1 g / kg DM

Based on mineral analysis from 22 calving farms year round

Nutritional implications

Ms Redfern says calcium, magnesium, and potassium are all linked and can create huge milk fever problems if they’re not fed at the right rates.

“The calcium and potassium exceeded the recommendations, but I could see it coming because a lot of forages have a lot of them. But from a milk fever standpoint, it’s a total disaster, ”says Ms. Redfern.

She adds, “You don’t want to provide a lot of calcium before calving because you want to stimulate the cow to produce calcium on her own, from her bones.

“Potassium carries a positive charge. The higher the potassium content of the forage, the greater the cation-food anion difference [decab] the value is going to be.

“[Potassium is] a nightmare for cows for two reasons: it prevents the absorption of magnesium and, [because magnesium] is responsible for the production of an enzyme in the kidneys to help cows mobilize calcium, if there is not enough magnesium in the ration, cows will have difficulty regulating calcium.

Twelve of the 22 farms did not achieve the recommended dietary magnesium concentration before calving.

Another basic trace element that was under-supplied was selenium, which is important for the development and immunity of calves during gestation when cows are immunocompromised.

One farmer “tripled” the minerals – he was going to feed the same level regardless of the size of the transition group, says Redfern. At £ 1,000 / t she suggests it’s something most farmers can hardly afford to do.

“However, not everything is due to the farmers. A farmer’s feed rep had told him to feed a pre-calving roll and top coat with a mineral. There are many reasons why these things happen, ”she adds.

“Bad becomes normal”

Milk fever and mastitis were recognized as far more problems than metabolic diseases, such as ketosis and metritis, by the farmers surveyed.

According to Ms Redfern, this is because breeders have to deal with these issues and mastitis carries milk contract penalties, unlike metabolic diseases, which can be “invisible” to the eye unless post-calving checks are carried out. are carried out.

“By being able to deal with these things on their own without veterinarian intervention, there is a level of acceptance,” she adds.

Most of the farmers interviewed did not perform fresh cow checks, but those who did were more engaged with their vet and had milk fever under control, says Redfern.

Many of these more engaged farmers had lined contracts, she adds.

Ms. Redfern has now made several recommendations to improve the health of cows in transition on the farm (see “Factors that need to change to improve management of cows in transition”).

Factors that must change to improve the management of cows in transition

  • Farmers calving year-round would benefit from joining focus groups, such as farmers calving en bloc, to compare performance to identify areas where they can improve.
  • Regular checks of fresh cows should be carried out after calving and staff should be involved in this process to promote a broader team discussion
  • The dairy industry must provide transitional nutritionists such as calf and young animal specialists to fill this important gap
  • Coordinated discussion between veterinarians and feeding advisers is needed
  • Renewed emphasis must be placed on housing for transitional cows to improve space requirements
  • Ways must be found to motivate farmers with unaligned dairy contracts to record transitional health issues, body condition and cow mobility score.

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