Premier Nutrition’s Transition Management System (TMS) involves members of their team visiting farms on a monthly basis to independently assess, score and record dry and fresh cow performance. Here’s some of what TMS Assessor, Ashley Morris, sees on her travels.
I’ve been a TMS Assessor for two years and I’ve seen a variety of ways farms transition cows, from complex to simple, good and poor. Being totally passionate about it, for me smooth transition –the period from late pregnancy to becoming a fresh cow – is involves a combination of optimal cow comfort, solid dry and fresh cow nutrition and regularly reviewing farm performance.
I’m privileged to work with farmers to help them interpret TMS reports, resulting in many successful changes to nutrition and management practices; often it’s only a few small tweaks that can make a huge difference.
One of my favourite examples is that of a South West dairy farmer that replaced his existing feed barrier with a post and rail system and increased the neck rail height to 1.4m based on our advice. The minimum feed space of 1m per cow was there, but if neck rails are less than 1.4m then feed intake can be jeopardised. This particular farmer also replaced his water trough, moving it from facing the straw pack to facing the feed fence and added a splash guard to prevent bedding from getting wet. These two changes resulted in reducing his mastitis infections by 20% over the dry period, average rumen fills went up from 3.4 to 4.2 and his average yield increased by 1.5 litres per day in the space of two months. The total cost was £500, which went on to save him 0.6ppl on mastitis costs and of course boosted his total milk yield.
Focus on cow comfort
One of the secrets to good transition is cow comfort – essentially providing a stress-free and comfortable environment for healthy, contented and productive cows. There are seven key comfort elements to consider; feed, water, light, air, rest, social stresses and space.
As nutrition specialists, we’re keen to see high quality diets in front of cows, but I can arrive on farm to see that dry cow feed is not available, badly formulated or poorly mixed, which totally counteracts good intentions. I recall one farm in the West Midlands who, until recently, was using unanalysed, poorly mixed silage in his dry cow ration. Although he was including a mineral blend, it was not tailored alongside the silage spec and his close-up neck rail was also far too low. We analysed his silage, created a bespoke mineral and reformulated his ration. Instead of replacing the neck rail, this farmer introduced a ring feeder into his close-up dry pen and these combined changes brought his rumen fills up from 3.25 to 3.48, reduced milk fever incidences from a whopping 30% to 3.45%, displaced abomasums dropped from 4.35% to 0% and this was all in the first month!
Water availability and quality is another crucial element for both dry and fresh cows, but water troughs in poor positions are one of the biggest challenges I see, as well as those filled with straw or those that have not been regularly cleaned. Clear, fresh water, allowing 10cm² per cow, in clean troughs, will keep cows hydrated and enable them to maximise yields and improve feed intakes, which is especially important in the warmer months.
Light and air also positively influence intakes as well as providing a better working environment. One of our Welsh farms suffered with heat stress and high ammonia levels for more than 6 months last year, which we identified as the root cause of his metabolic issues. Simply installing two new fans stopped his cows ‘air seeking’ and brought temperatures down to below the recommended 22 degrees/60% humidity range. His cow comfort score improved by 20%, but more importantly we also recorded improved feed intakes, a reduction in metabolic disease incidence and his yields improved post-calving.
Farmers are always surprised to learn the percentage of metabolic incidence on their farm and how getting cow comfort wrong can heavily affect yields, colostrum quality, calf health, fertility and overall transition. It’s not that farmers are unaware of their specific issues, but more that recording systems do not provide links between the cow’s physical state, metabolic instances and drops in performance like our TMS report is able to do.
Fat cows v’s thin cows v’s rumen fill
Fat cows with body condition scores (BCS) greater than 3.5 are targets for difficult calvings, retained foetal membranes, metritis, LDAs and milk fever. But I often record thin dry cows (BCS less than 2.75) who go on to struggle at their next service and regularly suffer displaced abomasum, ketosis, acidosis, milk fever and/or low yields, with a high risk of death within the first 100 days in milk. In my view, these cows should be categorised as just as risky, if not more so, than fat cows; these thin animals have no body reserves to fall back on in case of any issues around calving.
On all visits, I’m looking for dry cows with an ideal rumen fill of 4 (scale 1-5). Cows with rumen fills of 2 or less produce 5kg less milk at peak and are prone to metabolic issues. Using the TMS data and quickly pinpointing the source of a problem is huge bonus, and in the case of one of my Peak District farms it was low rumen fills in his fresh pen, largely occurring in his fresh heifers. The pen had a redundant wall causing a narrow passage between the straw pack and water/feed space and on every visit it was always blocked by at least one larger cow. As the wall was not needed, I suggested knocking it down which he did the next day! The following month, rumen fill scores in both cows and heifers in the fresh pen had increased by one point through improved passage space alone, taking them out of the ‘danger zone’. Needless to say, he is a keen TMS supporter and always takes time to discuss which cows I would flag as potential for pre/post-calving issues and what he can do about it, and we regularly review his ration to keep transition on track.
In terms of dry cow diet, a focus on metabolisable protein (MP) has enormous benefits to reduce metabolic incidences and produce higher yields post calving. One of our newer TMS farms had been recording significant incidences of dirty cows and milk fever so we analysed his farm and recommended a feeding programme of 6kg forage NDF, 12kg DM and a target of 1200 MP for his dry cows.
Literally overnight the farm picked up. The farmer happily reported easier calvings, less dirty cows and higher quality colostrum and, perhaps less obviously, this diet closed the gap between dry and fresh rations. Bringing fresh cow and dry cow diet constituents closer together whilst keeping a lid on energy pays huge dividends for transitioning cows.
How long for dry cows?
Finally, I’m regularly asked what the optimum dry cow period length should be, with most farms targeting 60 days. Our TMS data shows that a 60-day dry period only equates to an average of 45 days on most farms due to dry-off and calving dates being slightly out sometimes. Our recommendation, therefore, is a 60-day dry period with a minimum of 45 days, with cows on a close-up ration at least 21 days pre-calving. It’s sensible for farms to aim for 28 days to ensure early calving cows have sufficient time on close-up diets.
As a TMS assessor, I love being the ever important ‘second eye’ and whilst there is no magic bullet to improving transition performance, I’m passionate in helping farmers have high performing, well transitioned, healthy dairy cows.
- Have a stress-free transition line, such as a single dry pen or separate cow and heifer pens (day 45-0), which is adjacent to a designated fresh pen. Keep fresh cows here for a minimum of 2 weeks before moving back to the milking herd. This helps to reduce stress and dominance post-calving and allows easy monitoring for recovery, identifying illness and ensuring intake is kept high.
- Consider a dry cow period of at least 60 days, with weekly dry-offs no less than 45 days pre-calving. This reduces stress levels and hierarchy disruptions and allows colostrum to reach its antibody peak.
- Keep dry cow body condition scores at 3 – 3.25 to avoid fat and thin cows and associated metabolic and lameness issues that causes.
- Allow 1m per cow feed space and push-up feed at least 4-6 times per day to allow 24 hour access.
- If a cow is a repeat sufferer of lameness, it is wise to stop serving her.