Manage cows at calving for long-term health

By Rodney Woods

By Agriculture Victoria dairy extension officer Ash Michael

Recording disease incidence at calving is a critical step in managing metabolic diseases and establishing a successful and productive lactation.

The transition period is defined as the four weeks before and the four weeks after calving.

As the cow is adapting from non-lactating to lactating, a lot of changes are occurring which affect the cow’s hormones and metabolism.

All metabolic processes are intricately linked. A failure of one metabolic process will inevitably impact on the efficiency of others.

During the transition period, there is a greatly increased risk of disease, with 80 per cent of cow health problems happening within this period.

If there is a shortage of essential nutrients, the cow may be unable to adapt resulting in a range of diseases, including:

● Hypocalcaemia and downer cows.

● Hypomagnesaemia.

● Ketosis and fatty liver.

● Udder oedema.

● Abomasal displacement.

● Retained foetal membrane (RFM)/metritis.

● Poor fertility and poor production.

There is now a substantial body of evidence confirming the transition period represents a brief but critically important period of time in a cow’s life, when careful manipulation of diet can impact substantially on subsequent health and productivity.

As a result of an increased understanding of homeostatic processes, the concept of transition feeding has evolved from one focused on only control of milk fever to an integrated nutritional approach that optimises:

● rumen function;

● calcium and bone metabolism;

● energy metabolism;

● protein metabolism; and

● immune function.

There are four aims of transition cow management.

Cows should be managed so as to reduce disruption to the rumen, minimise mineral deficiencies, provide sufficient energy around calving and avoid immune suppression.

If these four aims are addressed during the transition period, and a successful lactation is established, cow health targets should be achieved.

Establishing a successful lactation means much more than delivering a live calf.

It also means:

● A cow with a rumen well adapted to higher energy feeds.

● Almost no clinical cases of milk fever in the herd.

● Very low incidence of other cow health problems common in the first two weeks after calving.

● Low mortality rates in the first two weeks.

● Higher herd fertility.

● More productive lactations.

● Less labour and stress from time spent on sick cows.

● Enhanced animal welfare.

By measuring and recording the incidence of metabolic diseases at calving dairy farmers can compare how many cases they have and compare against industry standards.

If you don’t measure, you won’t know.

Producers should be aiming for less than one per cent incidence of metabolic diseases. If the incidence is greater than two per cent then please contact your veterinarian or adviser for assistance.

If you find the incidence of these diseases on your farm are higher than the achievable targets, then contact your veterinarian or adviser for assistance.

For more information, visit: and search for ‘transition cow feeding’.