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Considered focus on transition period boosts herd health

Sector News Sector News19-8-2019

The development of an effective management and feeding system for transition cows has helped a Berkshire dairy unit improve cow health and production efficiency.

The team at Mapledurham Estate believe the success of the transition period can ‘make or break a lactation’ and work hard to ensure that the 460-head herd calve down with minimal issues all year round. 

The Holstein-Friesian herd, based near Reading, supplies Müller on an M&S contract and is averaging 10,575 litres/cow/year at 3.9% fat and 3.35% protein. In recent years the farm has moved from three times a day milking to twice a day, which has freed up the labour to rear the heifers on site rather than contract-rearing elsewhere, avoiding potential issues with TB movement restrictions. In this time, and despite the dry summer of 2018, yields have almost returned to their three times a day level.

Herd manager Mark Ingersent with Richard Greasley
Herd manager Mark Ingersent with Richard Greasley

Herd manager, Mark Ingersent has been at the helm for 13 years, and is keen to use all the data available to him to measure success and, in particular, to keep an eye on issues in the transition period. 

“The era has gone whereby you dry a cow off and then hardly look at it again until it calved,” says Mark. “That’s not to say our system is particularly complicated, but the results we achieve tells us it works.

 “Twice a week we dry off anything two months away from calving,” he explains.  “We were an early adopter of selective dry cow therapy and now use teat sealant only on 70% to 75% of the herd. Working with our vet, we are gradually increasing our threshold for using antibiotics from 200 somatic cell count up to nearer 250, depending on the cow’s past milk records and considering any other issues they may have.

 “In the last six months we’ve started vaccinating for rotavirus at drying off too, which seems to be having a positive effect on subsequent calf health.

Dry cow housing & management

Dry cow nuts are top-dressed on the forage
Dry cow nuts are top-dressed on the forage

“All dry cows and close-to-calving heifers are kept in the same, roomy cubicle shed, moving into the front ‘transition’ bay in the three weeks prior to calving, or four weeks if they are a heifer.  All transition cows are walked through the footbath and the parlour twice per week which really helps the heifers get used to the parlour and allows us to attach their magnets and transponders, and trim their tails, before they calve down.” 

All the dry cows at Mapledurham receive the same base ration of maize grass, straw, mixed with water to stop sorting.The transition group also receive two kg/head twice a day of ForFarmers Translac Advance nuts, top-dressed on the forage. The team tip out the feed along the barrier and then ensure all animals get up to eat it.

“When the cows stand up to feed is a good opportunity to walk down the line and check for signs of calving, says Mark. “I’ve worked with ForFarmers nutritionist, Richard Greasley, for many years. We know the Translac product really works because on the rare occasions we’ve run out of it, we see milk fevers and other associated issues developing pretty rapidly.

“Also, a few years ago we decided to trial a completely different feeding approach in an effort to obtain more milk from forage, and cut right back on our concentrate use including the dry cow nuts. It soon became clear that this wasn’t going to work for us and our incidences of things such as DAs and ketosis rocketed. 

“Our transition-related problems now run at a very low rate—for example in the last nine months we have only had three DAs and these have been with heifers who have had difficult calvings,” notes Mark.

Richard Greasley explains the science behind the product:  “Translac Advance contains a calcium binding product which captures calcium from the diet in the intestine, therefore making the calcium less available for absorption during the transition period.

“When the product is stopped being fed at calving, the hormonal system is then primed and ready to absorb calcium into the blood. This means more calcium is available when her demand for calcium rapidly increases, she is able to ‘switch on’ this calcium store much more easily.  This helps prevent milk fevers and also increases colostrum quantity and quality.

“What we are trying to do is prevent the estimated 50% of subclinical milk fever cases that occur at calving and never get picked up—the effect is like a PTO spinning at 540 rpm when it should be going at 1,000 rpm—it is working but just not as effectively as it could be,” says Richard.

Cows are monitored and scored monthly by the vet for BCS, cudding, rumen fi ll and locomotion.
Cows are monitored and scored monthly by the vet for BCS, cudding, rumen fi ll and locomotion.

Monitoring milking cows

Within four hours post-calving, cows are given the full milking ration, and Mark keeps a close eye on yield data for the first few weeks of lactation.  “If a cow starts dropping back in yield by more than a few percent, we’ll pick her out after milking and check her over.

“We also get the vet to condition score all animals once a month as well as recording rumen fill, cudding and locomotion—that fresh pair of eyes and the collation of that data into a report, really helps you to ensure that nothing gets overlooked,” concludes Mark.