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Transition cows can benefit from chromium supplementation

Drew Dickson for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 October 2019

The modern dairy cow is a model of remarkable productive efficiency. In high-producing dairy herds with annual average milk production levels in excess of 15,000 kilograms per cow, 75% or more of the energy consumed is translated into milk production and other functions beyond maintenance.

These levels of production require control of metabolism and interplay between key physiological systems to support high production, health and reproductive capacity at the same time.

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Transition period is critical

The most critical timeframe of the lactation cycle in dairy cattle is the transition period because it represents the period of most dramatic and dynamic daily change in nutrient demands and the partitioning to various physiological functions. Dairy cows must adapt to increased nutritional demands to support milk production through homeorhetic control mechanisms. In addition, they are subject to acute physical stress at calving as well as the challenge associated with negative energy balance due to the sudden onset of lactation.

The transition period also coincides with suppressed immune function, leaving cows more prone to infectious diseases such as mastitis and metritis. As an example, decreased neutrophil function during the periparturient period has been associated with disorders including retained placenta, metritis and mastitis. Excellent nutritional management of dairy cows, particularly during the transition period from late pregnancy to early lactation, is critically important to meeting overall demands for milk yield while maintaining health and reproductive capacity.

Chromium supplementation improves insulin sensitivity

The essential trace mineral chromium has the unique ability to bind to insulin receptors and allow glucose into cells. In cattle, chromium supplementation has increased insulin sensitivity, improved immune responses and reduced cortisol levels. University studies with chromium have also shown to reduce subclinical metritis, reduce days to first service, improve conception rates and increase pregnancy rates.

Chromium during transition and early lactation

As previously described, chromium improves many indices of immune function and metabolism. More recently, larger-scale studies have been conducted with different forms of chromium in order to determine effects on lactational performance, metabolism and reproductive function. Results from six of these experiments are summarized in Table 1.

Summary of responses to chromium supplementation during the transition period and early lactation

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Of these experiments, five reported increased milk yield during the postpartum period, five reported increased or trends towards increased dry matter intake (DMI), and four out of six studies reported decreased circulating non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA) concentrations or trends towards decreased NEFA concentrations, particularly during the prepartum period.

Although reproductive outcomes typically were not measured in these studies, they reported trends towards a greater percentage (50% versus 39.2%) of cows pregnant during the first 28 days, and researchers reported decreased days to first ovulation in cows supplemented with chromium.

In a recent study, cows fed chromium during the prepartum and postpartum periods had decreased NEFAs and had decreased incidence of cytological endometritis diagnosed, as discussed previously, supporting potential effects of chromium on reproductive function.

Effect of chromium supplementation in transition dairy cow diets on NEFA

Aiding an animal with insulin sensitivity can affect multiple variables important to dairy producers such as milk yield, reduced NEFA concentration and reproduction. As indicated in Table 1, feeding chromium increases milk production in the majority of cases.

At the same time, many of these studies observed a decrease in NEFAs, which can have an overall benefit on transition health. Figure 1 represents NEFAs in the blood of transition cows fed chromium compared to control animals.

Effect of chromium supplementation in transition dairy cow diets

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Click here or on the image above to view it at full size in a new window.

It can be interpreted that the cows represented in these studies are not in as severe of a negative energy balance as the control animals. Thus, the cows fed chromium are less likely to experience early lactation diseases such as subclinical ketosis.

Trace minerals play critical roles in aspects of energy metabolism, immune function and oxidative metabolism of dairy cattle, particularly during the transition period. Research has shown that chromium supplementation may enhance milk yield, improve metabolism and potentially improve reproduction through a role in decreasing cytological endometritis.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. click here to email an editor

Drew Dickson
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