Conversations: Ask your nutritionist about transition cow nutrition and management

Managing the transition period through proven nutritional avenues is the first step to ensuring your cows successfully join the milking herd. As producers and their advisors meet in the conference room (or kitchen), transition management continues to receive great attention because this period – three weeks prepartum to three weeks after calving – has the greatest and most clearly defined impact on cow performance and health.

By Elliot Block

Better understanding and proper formulation of the ration throughout the transition period can help you keep cows eating, healthy and performing optimally when joining the milking string.

1) What behavioral changes take place during the transition period?

Dry matter intake (DMI) decreases significantly seven to 10 days before calving. In addition, nutrient requirements, hormone levels and rumen function shift dramatically. Due to these physiological and biological changes, it is imperative that the transition ration delivers adequate energy as DMI declines, helping cows reach a positive energy balance as quickly as possible after calving.

Proactively monitor behavioral changes to help identify cows going off feed or that are getting sick. Talk with your nutritionist about how to deliver optimal energy levels in the transition cow diet.

2) How can other ration changes prepare transition cows for the upcoming lactation?

An effective nutrition program can help counteract the multitude of changes that occur during the transition period. Balancing rations for dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD), feeding an effective energy source and offering high-quality protein by delivering the optimal amino acid profile are all proven practices for helping the transition cow successfully join the milking string. When the nutritional needs of the transition period are managed effectively, cows have the ability to remain healthy, productive and profitable.

Discuss the ration with your nutritionist and why each piece is important to the transition cow diet.

3) What role does DCAD balancing play in the transition period?

The DCAD equation measures the levels of four macrominerals in the diet: potassium and sodium, positively charged cations, and chloride and sulfur, negatively charged anions. Research confirms lowering DCAD prepartum to -8 to -12 meq/100g ration dry matter helps maintain DMI and prepare the rumen for the upcoming lactation, helping to dramatically reduce the risk of metabolic disorders and increase peak milk yields. Postpartum DCAD levels should be raised to +35 to +45 meq/100g dry matter to increase DMI and reach milk and component production potential.

Ask your nutritionist about DCAD balancing and its benefits for your herd. If your rations are not currently balanced for DCAD, a forage test can help determine current levels of the four macrominerals in the DCAD equation to help you make educated decisions about DCAD balancing.

4) Beyond my nutrition program what management factors lead to a successful transition group?

Minimizing stress throughout the transition period is critical. Focusing on the following management areas can help keep cows comfortable and eating throughout the transition:

• Maximize cow comfort to encourage lying down, minimizing time spent standing and walking.

• Provide clean, dry and comfortable beds, lots or corrals.

• Minimize stressors by moderating pen densities and implementing heat-stress abatement practices.

• Monitor urine pH and DMI as two of the best indicators of transition cow problems.

Ask your veterinarian and nutritionist to help custom design fresh cow monitoring and treatment programs.


• Elliot Block is Senior Manager, Technology, Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition. Contact him via phone: 609-279-7517; e-mail:; or website:

• Access Arm & Hammer’s online