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Gauging success in transition programs

Dr. Jerry Mechor Published on 31 December 2012

Automotive industry experts tell us about the importance of tire inflation pressure. A properly inflated tire contributes to improved fuel economy, less wear on tires and will reduce accidents.

These features bring economic savings at the pump, the tire shop and the body shop. Correct tire inflation allows for better handling of the car, which improves safety and helps prevents accidents and loss of life.



The advantages of having correct tire pressure are so important that newer vehicles now have a tire pressure monitoring system. For those without one of these new features, an accurate pressure gauge should be carried to periodically check tires on your car or truck.

Now wouldn’t it be nice to have that gauge to determine how successful our transition cow program is at present? If we wait to see measurable “wreck” clinical outcomes such as milk fever, retained placenta, metritis, ketosis and displacements of the abomasums, we are late to the realization of a transition program going astray.

This delay has cost the producer considerably in terms of treatment costs, lost milk production, early culling losses, dead cows and significant negative effects on reproduction.

Stacked up behind this momentum of clinical disease are cows at risk that are being exposed to the risk factors such as nutrition, housing, heat stress, cow density and grouping practices.


Dairy producers are, for the large part, well versed in the features of nutrition and management that bring acceptable transition outcomes on a dairy.

The importance of adequate, well-sized and comfortable stalls for animals has been clearly established.

There are several approaches in dry cow and transition cow nutrition that can provide success on a dairy; however, having stocking densities in close-up and fresh cow groups exceeding stall capacity and not providing adequate room at the bunk for eating are excellent ways of compromising even the most successful nutritional approach.

Observational work suggests an optimal stocking density of 80 percent of headlocks or 30 inches of bunk space per cow during the transition period.

This summer should have been a major reminder to all of how important cow cooling is to the lactating herd; however, the group that is often neglected in terms of adequate cooling are the dry cows and up-close groups.

Maximizing consistent dry matter intake by reducing heat stress in these groups helps reduce postpartum metabolic challenges and has been shown to positively impact milk production.


A major opportunity for many dairies is to eliminate the commingling of primiparous and multiparous cows during the prepartum and postpartum periods. Commingling appears to particularly have negative impacts on the metabolic status of primiparous animals.

Although the dairyman and consultant recognize the importance of various nutritional, management and housing factors for a successful transition period and how they relate to a postpartum period with minimal infectious and metabolic disease, there still appear to be few in the industry that routinely use diagnostics to gauge the “tire pressure.”

Association of metabolites with postpartum disease and performance
Recent research from Cornell has established that healthy cows at the time of sampling with elevated nonesterified fatty acids (NEFA) in excess of 0.3 mEq per L one to two weeks before calving were twice as likely to develop postpartum metabolic disease.

In healthy postpartum animals sampled three to 14 days postpartum, NEFA and BHBA concentrations greater than 0.60 mEq per L and 10 mg per dl, respectively, were four times more likely to develop metabolic disease than animals with lower levels.

Animals with an elevation in prepartum NEFA were nearly 20 percent less likely to become pregnant and also had 700 kg less ME305 projected milk than animals with lower concentrations. So this research and similar work on NEFA and BHB has clearly demonstrated the impact on economically important indices to the dairy.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that, even in high-producing herds with few observable transition cow issues, we will routinely find a portion of animals with NEFA and BHBA elevations indicating increased risk for disease, reduced milk production and reproductive challenges.

It would appear that routine measurement of these metabolic parameters would be a useful tool for monitoring herds and evaluating the potential opportunities for improving transition cow management.

Available tools, timing, goals and expectations
Accurate cowside tests for BHBA in blood and milk have contributed to economic, fast and simple testing. NEFA testing is available at many diagnostic labs and one should seek recommendations on collection and shipping of these samples.

The focus of testing will be animals 14 to two days prepartum and two to 14 days postpartum. In larger dairies it is suggested that 12 to 20 cows in each group be sampled depending on how confident you want the estimate of herd-level status to be.

This sampling could be conducted every two weeks in the larger dairies. The thresholds for the tests will vary in reports in the literature; however, NEFA levels of 0.3 mEq per L and 0.6 to 0.7 mEq per L prepartum and postpartum, respectively, have been suggested recently. A threshold level of 12 mg per dL has similarly been suggested as a good level for monitoring of herds.

This type of metabolic testing is useful for herd-level testing to provide information on how the transition cow program is performing and so the question arises: When should I be concerned something is wrong?

Again, you will see several different levels suggested, but more recent work has suggested that appropriate herd-alarm levels would be when 15 percent of your sampled animals exceed the thresholds above for BHB and NEFA.

What to do when alarm levels have been reached?
It is important to note that this strategy of monitoring is ideal for determining if the transition cow program at the herd level is progressing normally. The goal is to intervene early and proactively at the herd level.

Our ability to change the outcomes of the animals that we have identified as being at risk for postpartum challenges because of elevation in BHB or NEFA is difficult because there are limited proven effective individual cow treatments.

Of the many products available to correct the ketotic postpartum animal, it is only recently that the use of propylene glycol in ketotic animals has been shown to speed the resolution of ketosis, prevent the progression to a more severe ketosis while increasing early-lactation milk yield in some situations.

In this research propylene glycol was used at 300 ml daily until the ketosis was resolved. This is much different from our traditional use of propylene glycol which focused on two to three days of drenching.

Individuals using these monitoring programs have suggested that when the alarm levels have been reached, there is need to put on the boots and investigate what is contributing to this current situation. The herd monitoring program is not a sick cow program.

The act of monitoring does allow us to quantify herd problems early, suggests the need for investigation and can serve to motivate management changes for prevention of the problem. Isn’t it better to be aware of the soft tire early before the crash and burn on the freeway?

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References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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Dr. Jerry Mechor
Senior Technical Consultant
Elanco Animal Health