Transition Feeding Guidelines

The most important part of the cow's lactation cycle is the three weeks immediately preceding and following calving. These six weeks are referred to as the transition period. Feeding and management practices during this time will determine the health and productivity of the dairy cow during the subsequent lactation. To understand why these six weeks are so critical it is important to understand some of the changes dairy cows undergo during this time.

A major change is the significant drop in feed intake, which occurs as cows move towards calving. At dry off, cows dry matter intake will be approximately 2% of body weight. One week prior to calving, dry matter intake has dropped to about 1.25% of body weight. This change is believed to be due, in part, to high levels of estrogen prior to calving. Although feed intake has decreased, nutrient requirements are high due to calf growth and preparation for milk production. Feed intake remains low after calving in spite of the nutrient demands of milk synthesis.

A smooth transition period, which allows cows to maximize dry matter intake after calving, is the objective. Guidelines for feeding include:

  1. A BCS of 3.5 to 3.75 at dry off and calving is ideal. Over conditioned cows have lower intakes postpartum and are more likely to develop metabolic disorders. Thin cows have more reproductive problems and lower milk production (ie. poor persistency).
  2. Nutrient dense diets will be required by close-up dry cows to compensate for decreasing feed intake (eg 15% crude protein). This means at least two dry cow feeding groups. Close-up rations will be more costly than far-away dry cow diets due to higher levels of protein and other nutrients.
  3. A fresh cow group, also with a nutrient dense ration, is ideal (20% crude protein, 40% bypass protein (UIP).
  4. The best forages on-farm should be kept for transition cows.
  5. A TMR is ideal to reduce selection and ensure consumption of a properly balanced diet. This helps avoid "slug" feeding of grains and the resulting acidosis.
  6. Offer the fresh cow TMR, free choice, from calving. Feed for 10% feed refusal during this time. The fresh cow TMR can be supplemented with 4 - 5 lbs high quality long hay to ensure proper rumen function.
  7. Fresh cows being hand-fed should have their grain increased by 1 lb/day as long as they are eating all the offered grain. Feed concentrates 3 - 4 times per day and do not exceed 5-6 lbs per feeding.

These are general guidelines and the specifics of your transition feeding program should be discussed with a qualified nutritionist.

Failure to provide a sound transition program will affect both production and health. Problems during the transition period can result in the loss of 10 - 20 lbs of peak milk, which is equivalent to an economic loss of $400 - $900 per lactation. Metabolic disorders are also more prevalent with an inadequate transition program. These are costly in terms of lost milk production, vet and drugs and discarded milk. Estimates from the U.S. place the economic loss from milk fever at $334, $285 for retained placentas and $145 for ketosis (U.S. dollars).

Occurrence of one metabolic disease also predisposes cows to other metabolic diseases. Cows with milk fever are 4 times more prone to retained placentas and 24 times more prone to ketosis. Cows with retained placentas are 16 times more prone to ketosis and six times more prone to metritis. Cows with displaced abomasums are 54 times more likely to develop ketosis.