5 Keys to Transition Success

April 17, 2020

by Katie Raver, Dairy Technical Services Manager

Feed bunk management

We all know that making sure feed is available to cows 24/7 is important but this is especially true in transition cows. Maximizing dry matter intake in prefresh cows is of particular importance in order to help minimize risk of metabolic diseases post fresh. A 2-part study by Perez-Baez et. al. found that for each 0.1 percentage point decrease in prepartum DMI as % of BW during days 3-5 pre-calving there was an 8% increase in the likelihood of developing ketosis. This is not the first study to find a relationship between prepartum decreasing DMI and increased risk of ketosis. They also found an association between DMI and postpartum metritis. Strong intake in the pre-fresh period can also encourage intake post fresh, which will help drive milk production. Huzzey et. al. found that, of the factors tested, the strongest stimulus for eating behavior in cows was delivery of fresh feed and pushing up said feed. So, although it is common to feed pre-fresh cows once per day, there may be a benefit to feeding twice per day. In addition, just as in lactation cows, the recommendation is to push up feed every two hours or less. This not only stimulates eating behavior but also helps to redistribute feed on the bunk to ensure all areas of the bunk have feed accessible. Further to this point, making sure feed is available all hours of the day is critical to maximizing intake.

Stocking Density & Cow Comfort

According to a 2019 producer survey study, stocking density is widely viewed as a critical factor in transition cow success, however there was some divergence on what constituted as overstocked (Mills et. al.). Current recommendation is that stocking density not exceed 100% for feed bunk and stalls. Some studies have looked at stocking densities less than 100% and did not see significant improvement in the incidence of postpartum disease when management was ideal. Cow comfort goes hand in hand with stocking density and making sure there is sufficient room for cows to lie, since adequate lying time is of paramount importance. There is increasing evidence that cow behavior prepartum is associated with the risk of development for many metabolic diseases that occur post fresh. In one study, overstocking in prepartum groups resulted in a decrease of almost 2 hours in lying time (14.8 hours for cows housed at 80% stocking density vs 12.9 for cows housed at 120% stocking density) (Miltenburg et. al.).

Balanced Ration

There are many strategies when balancing a ration for prepartum transition cows, however making sure everything is balanced is still key. Metabolizable protein is critical to transition success, especially in nulliparous animals. A recent meta-analysis done by Husnain and Santos (2019) showed a benefit in prepartum and postpartum DMI as well as subsequent lactation performance as MP increased from 500g/d to 1,100 g/day. This is likely due to the increased AA needs for growth of younger animals.  Sugars also play an important role in pre-fresh nutrition, a 2020 study by Havekes et. al. found that feeding sugars in the prefresh period resulted in over 4 lbs of additional intake and increased rumen pH when tested throughout the pre and post fresh period. Nutritional strategies are vital in helping to decrease risk of transition diseases such as ketosis and milk fever. Mineral balance often plays a key role in these strategies. Feeding low Ca diets is one way to help decrease the risk of milk fever. Another method to decrease risk of milk fever has been to acidify the rations of prepartum animals by feeding anionic salts(-21 to 0 DIM). This strategy has been extremely effective and quite popular in the recent decades.  When acidifying rations, it is important to keep mineral balance in mind. Ca and Mg tend to be at the forefront of discussion as they play an essential role in Ca balance. Current research supports feeding greater than 180g Ca and 0.45 to 0.50% Mg in the total mixed ration. However, a major part of a balanced ration is being able to deliver it consistently.

Feed Consistency

Delivering a consistent ration should always be a priority on any dairy, though many factors in the transition ration can make this harder to achieve. Many transition rations tend to be higher in forage levels to help maximize rumen fill and capacity while still limiting energy intake. This forage is extremely beneficial for rumen health but can make rations more sortable. Sorting in rations makes each meal slightly different than the next. QLF liquid is beneficial in rations where sorting is a concern. The below graph by Yanke (2019) shows the decrease in sorting when liquid was added to a pre-fresh ration.

QLF liquid can also carry important minerals to help minimize impacts of sorting and decrease variation. QLF LiquaSweet PF, and QLF Jumpstart, available at select manufacturing facilities, are able to carry all anions needed to fully acidify a ration in a non-sortable, palatable form. QLF Liquids can also carry all necessary minerals and vitamins in order to precisely deliver these nutrients as well. This will help to ensure each cow gets the nutrition she needs to help her transition with ease. Another aspect that can be a concern in transition rations is the load size mixed. Many times, because the transition group is much smaller, loads may be smaller. Depending on mixer size and number of animals, it may not require a full load of feed and this can lead to a more variable mix. Bunk samples of the TMR should be taken routinely to help ensure the ration is mixed properly and is matching formulated ration.

Set Benchmarks

Cows that are subject to metabolic diseases in the transition period may experience a decrease in productivity and reproductive success, which may lead to increased risk of culling. Death loss and net herd replacement costs are both major factors in total herd profitability. Setting benchmarks for these as well as other factors is key to keeping the herd as profitable as possible. Benchmarks not only help to establish goals for where you would like to be, but also help to understand the current levels. When establishing benchmarks, industry standards and herd history are a great starting place.  The addition of peer groups can then be helpful in determining a more regional baseline.


Miltenburg, C. L., T.F. Duffield, D. Bienzle, E.L Scholtz, and S.J. LeBlanc. (2018). The effect of prepartum feeding and lying space on metabolic health and immune function. J. Dairy. Sci.

Husnain, A., J.E.P. Santos.(2019). Meta-analysis of the effects of prepartum dietary protein on performance of dairy cows. J. Dairy. Sci.

Havekes, C.D, T.F. Duffield, A.J. Carpenter, T.J. Devries. (2020). Effects of molasses based feed supplementation to a high straw dry cow diet on feed intake, health, and performance of dairy cows across the transition period. J. Dairy. Sci.

Huzzey, J.M., T.J. DeVries, P. Valois, and M.A.G. von Keyserlingk. (2006). Stocking Density and Feed Barrier Design Affect the Feeding and Social Behavior of Dairy Cattle. J. Dairy Sci.

Perez-Baez, J. C.A. Risco, R.C. Chebel, G.C. Gomes, L.F. Greco, S. Tao, I.M. Thompson, B.C. do Amaral, M.G. Zenobi, N. Martinez, C.R. Staples, G.E Dahl, J.A. Hernandez, J.E.P. Santos, K.N. Galvao. (2019). Association of dry matte rintake and energy balance prepartum and postpartum with health disorders postpartum: Part II. Ketosis and clinical mastitis. J. Dairy Sci.

Mills K.E, D.M. Weary, M.A.G. von Keyserlingk. (2019). Identifying barriers to successful dairy cow transition management. J. Dairy. Sci.

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