Transition cow management: immune response & inflammation

Providing cows with the right nutritional support is critical to helping successfully manage their immune response and levels of inflammation during the post-calving period. Get this process wrong, argues ForFarmers’ Ruminant Specialist Dr Bethan Till, and the consequences will be costly.

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All dairy farmers know how important the transition period is for dairy cows. Around 80% of all metabolic disorders are linked to feeding and management during this time, so ensuring that feed, management, and animal hygiene are spot-on is crucial to avoiding costly health problems.

“We’ve long known that if producers fail to manage the transition period properly, they’ll face the immediate costs associated with metabolic problems such as metritis, ketosis and retained cleansings,” explains Dr Bethan Till. “A case of retained cleansing alone can cost around £500 in terms of milk loss and veterinary treatment, and that’s not considering the long-term impact on cow health, fertility and lifetime yield.”

And while a reduction in immune response and increased levels of internal inflammation in the reproductive tract are a natural part of a cow’s post-calving experience, new insights are being gleaned into just how these responses can negatively impact cow performance and the best ways to effectively manage them.

“I was fortunate enough to recently attend a ForFarmers study tour in Holland where Professor Fievez from the University of Ghent gave some fascinating new insights on the subject,” continues Bethan. “With new research being carried out in this field, it’s becoming clear that while these processes are natural responses to calving, if they aren’t managed properly and brought under control quickly, we can expect to see a negative impact on cow performance and fertility in the long term. This challenge is something that deserves our attention.”

Getting to grips with the basics

From the close-up dry period through to the first few weeks of lactation, a dairy cow will be in a state of negative energy balance, where energy intakes fail to keep up with energy demand. And it’s during this period that ketosis can take effect.

“Ketosis is when body fat is being burned instead of more readily available glucose,” explains Bethan. “It’s a perfectly natural response in mammals and can be managed effectively by increasing the energy density of a cow’s diet.

“However, at the same time we see a reduction in a cow’s immune response from 30 days pre-calving to 25 days postcalving. This immune system is under a lot of stress during this period and competing very hard with the lactation system for the limited glucose available to the cow. For 50 days the immune system is being compromised, just when it’s needed to help fight off disease and control inflammation within the reproductive tract.”

Rapid inflammation within the reproductive tract and uterus is key to promoting healing immediately post calving. But problems start to occur if this inflammation doesn’t resolve itself quickly, and this is where an impaired immune response can cause problems.

“A cow is at high risk of clinical and sub clinical disease within the reproductive tract post calving,” continues Bethan. “A well regulated immune response within the uterus is required to promote healing and a prolonged inflammation response leads to complications. Not only will the uterus be at risk of damage, with all the associated long-term negative fertility issues, but the immune system will continue to compete for extra energy – deviating energy away from milk production and reducing milk yield. Ideally what we want to see is a rapid resolution of immune activation, where inflammation peaks, then declines rapidly three to seven days post calving, with the uterus back to its pre-calving state.”

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Diet the key to success

While minimising stress and good cow management are important when supporting immunity and promoting a strong inflammation response, getting a cow’s diet right is also crucial.

“There are ways to manipulate the immune response through diet,” continues Bethan. “As well as providing a good supply of vitamins – especially vitamin E – to the pre-calving cow, it’s important to maintain a high protein content in the ration, as this has been shown to help support a cow’s immune system.

“In fresh cows I would recommend ForFarmers Lintec, which can be fed as part of the TMR or as Optima Lintec compound. Lintec is high in omega 3 fatty acids which have been shown to have an anti inflammatory effect within the cow and there’s also the bonus of supporting improved reproductive performance.”

So, while immune response and inflammation pose a significant challenge during the transition period, the hope is that by better understanding how this immune-inflammation response works, dairy farmers can learn to manage it more effectively.

Managing the transition period correctly is of upmost importance and it’s been a key focus on higher performing dairy farms for a long time.

“It’s therefore going to continue to be an area of special scientific investigation and research and I am looking forward to learning more about how we can successfully manage this critical period in a dairy cow’s life.”

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