Springer and transition cow management

The transition period is the last three weeks of pregnancy (close-up dry period) and the first two weeks of lactation (early-fresh period). It is the critical period in the cow´s preparation for lactation. Minimising the incidence of metabolic/health disorders during this time will help the cow achieve maximum milk production.

Important elements of an effective transition period

  • Maximise dry matter (DM) intake in readiness for peak production.
  • Help rumen microbes adapt by feeding similar feed sources to the milkers´ diet.
  • Avoid feeding high levels of calcium and buffers (containing sodium and potassium) in the close-up diet before calving, but reintroduce them in the early-fresh ration.
  • Introduce grain-based concentrates slowly (increase by 1 kg every two days until target intake levels are reached) to reduce the risk of acidosis.

Feeding close-up dry cows

Close-up dry cows are cows that are close (about three weeks) to calving. They should be lead fed with grain-based concentrates (1-3 kg/cow/day) three weeks before calving for adult cows and four weeks before calving for first-calf heifers. Lead feeding will help to:

  • maximise dry matter intake
  • prepare the rumen for higher concentrate levels in the milking diet
  • prevent metabolic disorders, such as milk fever, ketosis and grass tetany.

Feed close-up dry cows similar feed types (concentrates and forages) to the milkers´ diet to adapt the rumen microbes to the lactating diet and improve DM intake at calving.

DM intake declines rapidly 1-2 days before calving and remains low until 2-3 days after calving. Energy intake at this time may be reduced by 35%. Providing a diet that encourages intake during this period will minimise the loss of body condition, help prevent ketosis and maximise peak milk yield.

Feed anionic salts as part of the lead feeding program if milk fever and retained placentas are a problem. Anionic salts provide anions (chloride and sulphate) to counteract the cations (potassium and sodium) in the diet. The correct balance will help to:

  • lower body pH
  • stimulate calcium release from the bones
  • stimulate calcium absorption from the gut
  • prevent milk fever and retained placenta at calving.

Anionic slats are quite unpalatable and may further depress DM and energy intake. To determine whether the anionic salts are working, test the urine with pH test strips. Target a urine pH of less than 6.5 in Holstein Friesians and less than 6 in Jersey cows. If pH is higher than the target, consult    a nutritionist to formulate the springer diet and anionic salt mix to suit your herd.

Avoid or minimise feeds in the diet that have a high sodium (buffers: sodium bicarbonate), potassium (molasses, sorghum, ryegrass) or calcium (lucerne) content, as they increase the risk of milk fever and retained placentas. Balance the diet for a low calcium content to increase the mobilisation of    calcium from the bones and reduce the risk of milk fever and retained placenta. Ensure adequate mineral and vitamin levels in the diet.

Table 1. Adequate mineral/vitamin intake levels.
Mineral/VitaminAmount Helps prevent
Calcium 0.50 to 0.60% of the diet DM milk fever, downer cow syndrome, retained placentas and anoestrus after calving
Phosphorous 0.30% of the diet DM  
Magnesium 0.40% of the diet DM  
Potassium 0.65% but under 1.3% of the diet DM  
Sodium 0.10% of the diet DM oedema (build-up of fluid) in the naval and udder area
Selenium 0.3 ppm in the total diet retained placentas
Vitamin E 1500 IU/day calving disorders and potential vitamin deficiency for the newborn calf in the colostrum.
Niacin (vitamin B3) feeding 3-12 grams per day risk of ketosis at calving

Feeding early-fresh cows

Two weeks after calving, cows are referred to as early-fresh cows. In this early-fresh period, cows go into negative energy balance as their energy intake is lower than the energy they require. Their natural tendency is to produce milk from their body reserves until intake catches up to energy demand.    So calve cows in adequate body condition (5.0-5.5 out of 8) and do not allow the cows to utilise more than 0.75 of a condition score up to peak lactation.

Provide a balanced diet to achieve maximum DM intake as soon as possible after calving. This will help reduce the loss in body condition.

To reduce the risk of acidosis, increase the amount of concentrate gradually (by 1 kg every two days) up to its highest level. Ensure early-fresh cows are chewing their cud when resting (this is a sign of a healthy rumen).

As each early-fresh cow enters the herd, be alert for signs of potential metabolic diseases, such as milk fever, acidosis, and ketosis. Late detection can result in long-term production effects and even death.

Include buffers such as sodium bicarbonate to help prevent acidosis. Balance the diet according to the target diet specifications outlined in Balancing the diet