Help your ‘replacement makers’ make the transition

A facility built for handling dry cows efficiently also keeps them healthy.

By Susan Harlow

It’s the health of his cows that tells Neil Rejman how his transition-cow program is working, a program that depends on excellent housing and attention to feeding.

Rejman, his father, Jack, and brother Greg milk 3,300 cows on Sunnyside Farms, their Scipio Center, N.Y., dairy. While Greg oversees cropping, Neil is in charge of the cows. Last year’s herd average was 28,000 lbs. of milk per cow.

Steady expansion allowed Neil Rejman to add new and better transition cow facilities to his dairy operation.

Expanding from 1,800 cows since 2000, the Rejmans have added and upgraded  transition cow housing. They’ve built – and improved – three new dry-cow barns over the last 10 years. The current transition facility includes two three-row barns, connected by an alley.

“We’ve tried to throw a lot of resources into the facility to make it easy to clean and feed,” Neil Rejman said.

With plenty of space for prefresh cows, Rejman can group them with an eye toward labor efficiency. Drying cows off and moving them into prefresh housing used to be a “management nightmare,” he said. “This way, we don’t have to rely on the computer list, because the whole pen gets moved; 95% of the work is easy.”

Rejman dries off a pen of 60 cows each Tuesday, using Orbebin DC as dry-off treatment, and moving them into a large pen in the transition barn. Originally, he planned to  keep each pen of cows the same as it moved into close-up pens for more labor efficiency and maintain consistent cows social structure. But because the days carried-to-calf differ for each cow, it was impossible to maintain consistent pen numbers without adding an extra pen.

After trying a 45-day dry period, Rejman’s goal is now 60 days. “With that 40 to 45 days, it looked like what we gained with early dry-off, we lost in (milk production) in the next lactation,” he said.

At about 28 days before calving, cows are moved into one of two prefresh  pens. Just before birthing, a cow is moved to a bedded pack with six pens, giving each cow 250-750 square feet.

“We invest to get good quality forages and grains, and only use supplements that are extremely proven and have consistent responses,” Rejman said. “We don’t watch total ration cost – we analyze each ingredient and determine the value independently. The total cost is what it is.”

The feeding system is on FeedWatch. “The feeders love it and you can actually track what’s going on,” Rejman said. “FeedWatch can show you pen count history, so can see if the guys are doing a good job not overcrowding particular pens.”

Rejman’s nutritionist, Dan Button, focuses on managing energy balance in both far-off and close-up dry cows.

“The key is collecting accurate dry matter intakes (DMI),” Button said. The variable number of cows in each pen, difficulty in precisely calculating refusals and constant variations in intakes make it a huge challenge. But at Sunnyside, it helps that experienced feeders do an excellent job of feeding.

Button typically balances dry-cow diets with between 0.5 and 2 Mcals per lb. more energy density than daily requirements (based on Cornell Nutrient Management Planning System – CNMPS), making adjustments frequently as DMIs change.

Close-up cows are fed a controlled-energy diet with 5-7 lbs. of wheat straw. Heifers are fed a diet slightly higher in energy density, because their intakes are typically lower and some metabolic diseases, such as displaced abomasums, are rarely a problem.

Because there’s extra feed truck capacity in a load of heifer ration, some of the close-up cows have been fed the extra heifer ration, at a rate of 30-32 lbs., compared to close-up cows getting 28 lbs. of the cow ration.

Rejman and Button see no difference in milk production or incidence of metabolic diseases, such as ketosis or displaced abomasums, between cows on the cow ration and those on the heifer ration.

“What does that say? I’m not sure,” Rejman said. “The variation in energy has raised a lot of questions. Maybe it’s the energy balance of the far-off dry cows that’s important.”

Rejman suspects body condition may play a part in how prefresh cows use their ration, but research has yet to determine the role, because few studies include thin cows. One of the difficulties in feeding a controlled-energy ration to dry cows is that some cows may be underconditioned.

So how do you feed those cows adequately without overfeeding the rest of the group? Cornell dairy researchers plan a study at Sunnyside that will compare high- and low-energy diets for prefresh cows and heifers.

Employees walk through the prefresh pens with a status checklist two times a day. The goal is to move a cow into the maternity area when she shows signs of calving. DairyComp records identify the employee minding the prefresh and calving pens, so Rejman can monitor employees, too. “It’s rare that a calf lands in the alley,” he said.

All freestalls are deep-bedded with manure solids from Sunnyside’s one-year-old digester.   The six maternity pens are bedded with shredded newspaper, changed bi-weekly, along with a new layer of sand for traction.

“We use minimal additives, but one thing we always do – every fresh cow gets a bottle of calcium subcutaneously. It’s cheap and, even if she doesn’t need it, it’s beneficial for some cows that are subclinical milk fever,”  Rejman said. Giving calcium is also an opportunity to check the fresh cow for general health and well-being.

After that, cows are moved into a fresh-cow pen, with a low stocking rate between 60% and 90%, for 14 days. Rejman’s philosophy is to leave his fresh cows alone. “Our goal is to try to minimize the ‘futzing’ time with the cow,” he said. “We concentrate on the 10% that need it, rather than all of them.”

The fresh-cow diet is similar to the lactating cow diet, but with 3 lbs. of dry grass hay, raising the physically effective fiber and helping prevent DAs.

“We have been through that on and off and (the hay) has been phenomenal in helping,” he said. “We’re very, very happy with that.”

Monitoring milk weights helps pick out fresh cows needing extra attention, although they are cross-checked with a days-in-milk list to determine which are true deviations.

Cow health, not milk production, show the success of his transition cow program, Rejman said. “Our hope with the second heifer diet was to drive milk production. But we haven’t had any luck with increasing 30-day milk. So we try to minimize fresh-cow disease. We haven’t been able to figure it out with energy density of the diets, only through reduction in fresh cow disorders.”

The dairy has decreased the DA rate in the last year to about 1%, and has just 7% retained placentas and 5% stillbirths.  It sees very little clinical ketosis, and milk fevers are rare.

“We try to build facilities that are best for the comfort of the cow, are easy for people to do good, consistent work, and manage the individual cow,” Rejman said. “It is easier for employees to do a better job with efficient facilities. It is hard to do one without the other.”

Is the dry cow ration that important?

Dairy producers have a lot more leeway in feeding prefresh cows than they think, said Ric Grummer, chair of the Department of Dairy Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s been a lot of attention to feeding the transition cow, but the reality is that the research, after about 20 years, shows that there’s a large amount of flexibility that producers have in feeding those cows.”

Dairy researchers would serve the industry better by focusing on nutrition for newly fresh cows, where few studies have been done, Grummer said.

In a presentation to the Midwest American Society of Animal Science/America Dairy Science Association meeting, held in Des Moines, Iowa, in March, Grummer reviewed a wide range of studies on cows three-weeks prefresh.

The research covered such treatments as forage-to-concentrate ratio in diets, substitution of nonforage fiber sources, and different energy levels. He found that increasing concentrate levels precalving boosted dry matter intake (DMI), but the effect did not carry over to after calving. Declining DMIs of prefresh cows are not likely to throw them into negative energy balance before calving.

“Not much of anything made a difference,” Grummer said. “So we have quite a bit of flexibility in the three weeks before calving – we don’t have to steam up cows and get grain in their diets to acclimate them to fresh-cow diets.” That gives producers more choices in grouping: a one-group dry-cow pen – or separating heifers for social reasons – is workable. The single ration also makes it easier to implement a shorter dry period, especially for more mature cows, with the ability to vary which cows go into the dry pen.

That said, feeding cows a controlled-energy, high-fiber diet throughout the entire dry period makes sense. “Even in the last few months before calving, her energy requirements are quite minimal compared to a lactating cow’s. It’s also a less-expensive ration,” Grummer said.

Grummer found that:

1) Energy status is most compromised during the first three weeks of lactation – the most important time to feed a transition cow correctly.

2) Cows can return to positive energy balance quickly if fed adequate diets.

3) Energy intake probably has more impact on energy balance than milk yield.

4) “Successful feeding” is more likely to minimize negative energy balance than decreasing milk yield.

But what is “successful feeding”? Grummer said there’s a real lack of research on feeding the cow in the three-week period postfresh, partly because cows are so variable and hard to study during this stage.

More research must focus on this postpartum stage, when the cow goes into negative energy balance, peaking at about 10 to 20 days after she calves, he said.

FYI

E-mail Neil Rejman at ncrejman@yahoo.com.

Contact Ric Grummer via phone: 608-263-3492 or e-mail: rgrummer@wisc.edu

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