The days before and after calving are important to cow and calf health

The transition stage in dairy cattle consists of the 60 days prior to calving and the 30 days following calving. The way producers manage cows in this transition stage is crucial to the health of both the cow and calf. 

Transition Stage Importance: During the transition period from dry to lactating, a cow’s nutrient needs greatly increase. The spike in nutrient requirements is due to the cow’s need to support the exponential growth of her calf in that timeframe. Close to 75 percent of a fetus’s growth occurs in the last three months of gestation. 

Meeting the cow’s nutritional requirements during her last trimester ensures a healthier calf. “If the cow is not adequately supplemented on a caloric standpoint that final portion of calf development is greatly reduced which can cause decreased production throughout its life as well,” Chloe Collins, dairy specialist with the University of Missouri Extension, said.

Dairy specialists encourage producers to pay particularly close attention to their cows’ nutritional needs during the transition stage. Producers will want to make sure cows avoid a negative energy balance, in which they are using more energy than her diet can sustain. 

Transition Stage Issues: Dairy cows can suffer from serious health issues if they are not properly managed during the transition stage. If cows are operating with deficient body reserves during the transition stage, then they run the risk of getting ketosis. 

Ketosis occurs when a cow starts pulling from her body fat stores, triggering a metabolic disorder that comes from the cow mobilizing body stores due to a negative energy balance, then spurring a hypoglycemic state. Proper nutrition can help prevent ketosis. 

In the 30-days after having her calf, the cow has different energy needs. “We still need to avoid a negative energy balance – even though she’s not growing that calf anymore she must make milk to feed it, which still requires energy,” Collins said. 

In the 30-days post-calving a common issue that can develop is milk fever or hypocalcemia. As soon as the cow freshens her body has a new demand for calcium. According to dairy specialists, if the calcium is not readily available or the cow cannot access enough then she may lose the ability to stand or function on her own. “This is because calcium is one of the key players in the muscle contraction process. When we think about parturition or expelling that calf it takes a lot of muscles contracting to make that happen which is where most of the calcium that she once had goes,” Collins explained.

Transition Stage Strategies: There are management strategies dairy producers can put in place to make sure cows receive proper nutrition and stay healthy during the transition stage. Dairy specialists advise producers to feed their cows calorically dense feedstuffs such as high starch grain products. “We must remember that she is also running out of room to put food, so we have to be mindful in choosing a ration that she can eat enough of to meet those needs,” Collins said.

Providing calorically dense feedstuffs will help to prevent cows from lacking energy or calcium thus preventing health serious health issues. Dairy specialists encourage producers to have a veterinarian-client-patient-relationship (VCPR) in place. “Make sure you have a good VCPR so if the cow does need vet attention or if you need to have calcium supplement on standby it’s not a last-minute scramble,” Collins shared. 

Producers should monitor the animals during the transition stage and have a plan of action if they need to intervene. Producers will also want to keep track of a cow’s body condition score at dry off and at calving to determine her performance during the dry stage and into transition.


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