TRANSITION cow problems usually manifest themselves in the month after calving, says Dan Griffiths of Paragon Vets.

Multiple factors can contribute, and many of the important precipitating factors start prior to calving, in the dry cow period. As dairy cows approach their expected calving date, there is a natural slow decline in appetite as the big day looms. This occurs for various physiological reasons, but the key to reducing transition disorders, such as ketosis and milk fever, is to minimise this reduction in appetite. Put simply, happy cows will have healthy appetites. The key to happy cows is cow comfort. Let us face it, if you were going to ruminate for a couple of hours, wouldn’t you like to do it in a cosy bed?

The three principal areas that can be targeted on farm in housed cows, in the dry period, to maximise cow comfort are: Housing: It is essential, especially when new housing is being designed, to consider cubicle numbers, cubicle size and cubicle access. Generally, one needs more cubicles than cows. This is to ensure that cows, lower down the hierarchy, always have access to a place to lie. Cubicle size needs to fit the size of cow on the farm but in general, cubicles should be more than 1.8m long by 1.3m wide. One of the key aspects of cubicle design, is lunge space. When standing up, cows will usually rise on their hind legs first. As they do so, they lunge forward. This requires a minimum lunge space of at least 75cm.

Having the correct number and size of cubicles is of no value, if all the cows cannot access them easily. Providing multiple access points through out the housing, allows cows to circulate in different streams, meaning that docile cows can avoid dominant cows, have access to cubicles and get to feed and water, without hindrance.

Finally, consideration needs to be given to ventilation, maximising clean air exchange, and allow cows to stay in their thermal neutral zone (5 – 20 C).

Feeding and watering: To maximise appetite and dry matter intake (DMI), all cows must have access to feed when they look for it. This means there must be more than 75cm of feed space access per cow, or 5 headlock gates for every 4 cows in the dry cow area. A lack of water will also decrease DMI. To prevent this there must be at least 10cm linear access space per cow, clean water and more than 2 locations per pen.

Individual cow factors: Fat cows, those with a body condition score of > 3.5 are at increased risk of ketosis, because they have the capacity to generate more ketones, as they utilise their body fat stores. The ideal BCS in the dry period is 3-3.5. Other high-risk cows include lame cows, and those carrying twins. Low calcium, is the most common macro-mineral disorder that affects transitioning dairy cows. This leads to milk fever in the lactating cow and is best prevented by manipulation of the dry cow diet. Ideally, a diet low in calcium and high in magnesium should be fed to all dry cows in the 2-3 weeks before calving.

Addressing these key areas, will maximise cow comfort and appetite, to minimise body fat utilisation and therefore ketosis, in early lactation.