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How to Feed Transition Cows for success?

The transit time of dairy cows is defined as the period six to eight week around calving and it influences enormously the lactation and its success. Many health problems originate in the transit period. Dairy cows’ well-being and performance depend on the transit period being as smooth as possible. During this time, the cow undergoes changes in energy requirements simply due to the onset of lactation. We can see changes in the utilization and metabolism of fats and proteins, at hormonal level, and in the utilization of calcium 1.

With the onset of lactation, the energy requirement for milk production increases, but even before it increases due to the growth of the fetus. In this context, the energy balance is defined as the difference between the energy consumed by the cow and the energy required daily to meet maintenance and performance needs 2. If the energy balance is positive, the excess energy is stored in fat depots; if the energy balance is negative (NEB), energy reserves are used for energy production.

Influences on the energy balance

The two most important factors influencing energy balance are milk yield and energy intake 2. However, there is also a correlation between energy balance and cow health 3.

What is the reason for this? In NEB fatty acids (NEFA) are mobilized from fat reserves. The NEFAs are taken up by the liver to be used for energy. When this occurs excessively or over a long period, the amount of NEFA that has been mobilized exceeds the capacity of the liver, resulting in increased formation of ketone bodies that can be detected in the blood (fig. 1). Although the ketone bodies also serve to produce energy, in high concentrations they cause damage. They can cause subclinical and clinical ketosis or promote the development of other diseases such as abomasal displacement or uterine inflammation 4. High NEFA and ketone body concentrations in the blood suppress the immune system and reduce feed intake 5. Another consequence is lower milk performance 4.

Figure 1: Mobilization of fatty acids and their metabolism. NEFA=non-esterified fatty acids, VLDL=very low density lipoprotein, BHBA=beta-hydroxybutyrate.Figure 1: Mobilization of fatty acids and their metabolism. NEFA=non-esterified fatty acids, VLDL=very low density lipoprotein, BHBA=beta-hydroxybutyrate.

And what influence does the feed intake have?

A very big one! Dry matter intake has an influence not only on energy balance but also on metabolic health and lactation performance 6. Cows with high dry matter intake have a lower risk of metabolic disorders, whereas cows with low dry matter intake have been shown to have higher concentrations of ketone bodies and NEFAs in the blood 7. The goal should be to ensure high dry matter intakes!

Do inflammations play a role?

Definitely! Inflammations occurring peripartum have negative effects on feed intake. Causes for inflammation in the transit period are manifold: the birth process alone triggers inflammatory reactions, but also uterine inflammation, rapid ration changes with subsequent "leaky gut" syndrome or heat stress cause an increase in inflammatory markers in the blood 8. Depending on the extent of inflammation, there is an increased risk of other diseases 8. And the same consequence here - the inflammation affects the milk performance.

Another change - the need for minerals.

Not only fat is mobilized, but also minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. With the onset of lactation, the calcium requirement increases and triples within a few days 9. If the blood calcium level cannot be regulated, the clinical form of hypocalcemia develops. But the subclinical form of hypocalcemia also affects the health of dairy cows by increasing the risk of other diseases 9

How can dairy cows successfully manage the transit period?

Feed intake is crucial!

The goal in any feeding system is to provide cows with a ration that meets their requirements 10 and to achieve good dry matter intakes just before parturition and in early lactation. Of course, barn conditions, equipment, herd size, management and cost must be considered when selecting a feeding method. High performance should come to a greater from palatable high-quality roughage. This is because it ensures both nutrient and structural supply. Feed intake and its maintenance are crucial in preventing metabolic diseases 7. Better energy supply both just before calving and in the first third of lactation not only helps to avoid therapy costs but also to achieve higher milk yields 7.

How do I ensure high dry matter intakes? It is important to provide good quality feed, closely monitor the animals and ensure adequate feeding spaces, as well as an environment that is as stress-free as possible. The cows' fossa paralumbalis is an important tool for checking rumen fullness and dry matter intake 7. In addition, roughage helps stimulate forestomach functions, but yeasts, sodium propionate, glycerol and B vitamins are also helpful for rumen stimulation 7.

How to maintain good feed intake during the transition period (in accordance with Drackley and Cardoso, 2014 11):

  • Reduce stress!  
  • Avoid very high body condition scores!  
  • Avoid energy oversupply during dry period! 
  • Feed qualitative and tasty roughage! 
  • Monitor  the cows closely! 
  • Avoid excessive intake of rapidly fermentable starch postpartum! 
  • Support the immune system!
  • Prevent excessive inflammatory reactions! 

Keeping inflammation under control - but how?

There are several ways to reduce the extent of inflammation. For systemic inflammation that is already showing symptoms such as increased internal body temperature, veterinary advice should be sought, and therapy initiated. Various additives can be used as preventive measures. Polyphenols, secondary metabolites synthesized by plants have a natural defense function 12. Their anti-inflammatory properties have already been described in numerous studies and are based on blocking the activation of the transcription factor NF-κB, which is involved as key role in the regulation of inflammation12. In addition, polyphenols can prevent the development of oxidative stress 12. Some studies, summarized by Gessner et al., 2017, showed that polyphenols also have the potential to decrease inflammation in dairy cows and reduce stress at the cellular level in the liver of transit cows. Savings in energy expended on inflammatory responses can result in improved milk yield 12.

Which supplementary feed can you use to optimally support your dairy cows' metabolic health during the transit period and prevent excessive inflammatory reactions?

We recommend KetoCoat as 3-in-1 protection during this challenging period. It contains grape seed extract in rumen-protected form, which is rich in polyphenols. At the same time, other ingredients help to support fat metabolism, thus promoting the liver health of the dairy cows.

Is the feed intake or lower palatability of the feed your bigger problem? Then we have other strategies for you! Contact our experts!


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