Transition is the ‘danger zone’ for dairy calving

CN-MR-1-Dairywebinarby T.W. Burger
The period just before and after calving can be a very dangerous time for a dairy cow, says Gustavo M. Schuenemann, DVM, MS, PhD, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, Ohio State, and OSU Extension veterinarian.
“That transition period, especially during delivery and the week before and after, are critical point in the cow’s life, he said. “That will dictate how a cow performs later on, if they get sick or develop metabolic diseases.”
But with knowledge and focused analysis on the part of owners and workers, the cow’s odds can be improved and the owners’ profitability enhanced, said Schuenemann.
Schuenemann spoke on June 23 at a webinar titled “CSI for Dairy: On-Farm Audits to Assess Risk.” The event is part of a series of free workshops and webinars offered by Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
With steady increases in interest in organic foods of all types, Schuenemann said the methods used to care for cows on organic and conventional farms are identical.
“Organic or conventional, it’s all the same. It’s a natural process,” he said.
“Every farm is a system,” he said. “Decisions that you make in one area will have an impact on all the areas. Successful farmers understand… that everything on the farm is interrelated, no part independent from another… It’s all about attention to details. Most of what we see in variation of performance is due to management.”
Schuenemann’s topic on June 23 was transition cow management, emphasizing calving-related disease prevention and on-farm risk assessment.
In plain language, what he talked about was how to keep cows as healthy as possible during the transition period when they are “off duty” during calving and the lead-up to it before they can rejoin the milking herd. It is all about paying attention. That period runs from two months before and one month after the expected calving date. The things that any cow has to go through during pregnancy are all important factors.
When a mature cow calves, there is a period during which her intake of feed is greatly reduced for some 10 to 12 weeks, according to various sources. The bad news is that it will take only about half that time for her to reach her peak milk yield. That means that for five to six weeks, she is drawing on her own body’s reserves to produce some of that milk.
This creates an “energy gap,” and the longer it lasts, the more difficult it will be to get the cow to become pregnant again.
It’s all about the math, Schuenemann said. A cow in the transition period is hardly on vacation, but she is also not producing any money.
“Questions to ask include: how she goes through parturition and refreshing,” Schuenemann said.
In the three weeks prior and three weeks after calving… and the 60 days dry before calving… are a massive challenge for the cow. Schuenemann recommends the farmer sample for serum calcium levels and other factors from dry-off to early lactation.
Pregnancy is at least a double whammy for the cow. She not only has to build a calf from scratch, but she has to create the colostrum, the first milk following calving.
The substance, very different from ordinary milk, is crucial to newborn animals because, aside from its “souped up” nutritional value, it provides a passive transfer of immunity to many diseases directly from the cow to the calf.
A cow’s ability or desire to eat becomes compromised during the transition period, Schuenemann said, and can have a profound effect on a cow’s health.
The stress on a cow during the transition can lead to some of the important numbers in a cow’s test results to go awry. Hypocalcemia, a two-dollar term for low blood calcium is one, especially during the first seven days after calving. Low calcium levels are a good warning sign of other problems.
“We know that cows with hypocalcemia end up with more compromised immune systems,” Schuenemann said. “We also know that cows that have most transition diseases — displaced abomasums, ketosis, metritis, pneumonia, milk fever, and retained placenta” come about in the wake of calcium deficiencies. Eighty percent of all cow diseases strike during the transition period, he added.
“Our biggest problem is that we sometimes can’t tell that a cow is sick, but we know they have a very high probability of getting sick,” he said.
For every cow he sees on a farm that has gone down, he knows that others in the herd are most probably sick as well.
There are tests that can detect problems, of course, but one of the best preventative measures is simply being observant.
“Walk the pens, walk the pastures, be on the lookout for symptoms, such as vaginal discharge,” Schuenemann said.
If anything seems out of whack, call your vet, he advised.
A difficult birth is a good predictor that a cow’s return to the milking floor might be delayed, Schuenemann said.
“The cow that went through normal birth is moving, socializing, eating and drinking much more in the first few days after calving that the cow that underwent a more difficult, assisted calving,” he said.
A drop in feed intake is the direct result of altering a cow’s “time budget” within the transition period.
“If you compromise the 12 hours a day she spends resting, she’s going to compromise one or the other of the other things she does. Chances are she’s going to compromise on eating. Keep in mind that from drying off to giving birth, there should no change in body condition, no change in body weight.”
Schuenemann said much of a dairy farm’s success or failure comes down to the people who work there. In a “field of dreams” of interaction between nutrition, animals, facilities and equipment, everything pivots around people who are, ideally, on the ball and know what they are doing.
“It doesn’t matter if you have 50 cows, 100 cows, or how many,” he said. “This is very, very important… People play a very key role.”
He suggested regular training and cross-training and meetings on a monthly basis to review and discuss any issues that may have arisen.

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