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Monitoring strategies to promote healthy, productive fresh cows

Angie Manthey for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 March 2020
Cow laying in bedding

Fresh cows present one of the biggest opportunities for increased performance on dairy farms. However, fresh cows deal with many stressors and challenges – and if they are not properly set up for success, they will not be able to achieve an optimal level of production.

After calving, the cow undergoes several changes that can put stress on its immune system. As a result, the fresh cow is at risk for developing various metabolic disorders, and any issues that arise during this time can affect milk production during both current and future lactations.

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Therefore, in order to maximize potential, implementing management and monitoring strategies that include careful attention to detail can help get the fresh cow off to a successful start. The monitoring and management strategies outlined below will help guarantee a successful fresh cow transition that will, in turn, help increase overall performance.

Due to differences in herd sizes, along with labour and facility constraints, dairy farms approach fresh cows in many different ways. As a result, what works on one farm may not be practical on another. Working with the farm’s team of trusted professionals, herd-level protocols can be implemented that are farm-specific and set the fresh cows up for success. One example is pen moves. Some herds have a separate fresh pen while others commingle cows from the start. When determining pen moves for fresh cows, it is always important to keep stocking density low so the cows can maximize lying time along with dry matter intake (DMI).

Fresh cows should also be monitored closely, regardless of any pen moves that may take place. Any employees working with fresh cows should be trained properly, have an eye for detail and understand the importance of fresh cow health. The earlier an issue is detected, the easier it will be to correct this issue or diminish the severity of the incident.

It is important to also keep in mind the best fresh cow programs base any changes on each individual cow’s progress and not on days in milk. At a minimum, fresh cows should be checked at least twice per day for no less than 10 days, no matter the facility. This is especially important if the cow experienced difficulty calving, had a twin birth, shows signs of retained placenta, is lame or is weak. When observing fresh cows, the front and back of the cow should both be evaluated. A list of aspects to consider should include:

Body temperature

An elevated temperature can be the first sign of an underlying infection. When measuring body temperature, it is important to note the environmental conditions, as heat stress can cause body temperature to be one or more degrees greater than what is typically considered normal.

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Uterine discharge

It is normal for cows to have discharge for up to two weeks post-calving. Foul-smelling or abnormally coloured discharge, however, is a sign of an infection or retained placenta. Any visible placenta retained after 12 hours is considered “retained placenta” and should be promptly addressed. Cows that experienced any calving difficulty may be more prone to retained placenta or infection and should be monitored more closely.

Manure consistency

The consistency, appearance and odour of the manure should be evaluated. The manure should be firm enough to form a pile. Any manure featuring a fluid consistency, the presence of blood or a foul smell can be an indicator of disease or that the rumen is not working properly and should be further investigated.

Appetite

This can be more difficult to assess depending on how the facility is set up and may be evaluated most successfully after fresh feed has been delivered or immediately after cows exit the parlour.

Physical appearance

Carefully trained personnel should assess whether the cow looks healthy or abnormal. The cow should be alert with a willingness to move around and should not show any signs of weakness. The eyes, nose and ears should also be checked. The eyes should be bright and not sunken, as that could be the result of dehydration, a displaced abomasum (DA) or an underlying infection. The nose should be licked clean of any feed and free of any discharge. The ears should not be droopy, which could be a sign of illness or hypocalcemia. The respiration rate and any evidence of coughing should also be observed and recorded, as this could be an indication of pneumonia.

Milk yield/udder fill

Milk yield and udder fill can be an indication of the cow’s overall health and how it has been eating. After calving, milk yield should increase by small increments daily. An udder that is not full is typically a sign of a metabolic issue or illness, such as metritis, ketosis, hypocalcemia, DA or pneumonia. These illnesses depress DMI and, as such, should be treated promptly. Any excessive or lingering edema should also be recorded.

Rumen fill/rumination

Farms with rumination collars can easily monitor rumination minutes. Fresh cows should have a minimum of 450 rumination minutes per day at five to seven days post-calving. For farms without rumination collars, rumen fill and the time cows spend ruminating should be observed.

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Specialized record sheets that include these criteria can be used to track the progress of individual fresh cows. If there was a difficult calving, that should also be taken into consideration, as a difficult calving can often result in abnormalities in one or more of the above criteria. Other cowside tests to determine the presence of mastitis, ketosis or subclinical milk fever can also be implemented based on the goals and needs of individual farms. Any pen changes should be minimized, as they are stressful to the fresh cow. The fresh cow should have normal results in each of the above categories before undergoing any pen changes to prevent further disease and setbacks.

Even though fresh cows experience several stressors and are at risk for various metabolic disorders, through strategic grouping strategies, along with careful management and monitoring, their lactation can get off to an optimal start.  end mark

PHOTO: A cow laying in bedding. Photo by Mike Dixon

Angie Manthey
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