Feeding Transition Cows


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Late Lactation/ Dry Period Transition Period Pre-calving Post calving

The transition period in a cow's life requires precise feed management to ensure health and optimal milk production. This page explains the significance of managing body condition score (BCS) targets in late lactation or dry periods, noting the importance of not waiting until the last month pre-calving to gain BCS. It also advises you on pre-calving feeding based on BCS and what to consider when choosing the type of feed. Finally, it touches on post-calving and the need for unrestricted access to quality food, noting that little can be done to alter BCS loss in the first few weeks post-calving.

The transition period of a cow requires specific feed management

Late Lactation/ Dry Period - Identify at risk cows

  • Focus now on achieving BCS targets. Meeting targets will simplify management of the transition cow pre- and post-calving.
  • Although average BCS values for the herd are useful, it is important to identify individual cows that are at, above, or below target.
  • Cows need to be dried off in sufficient time to reach BCS targets before calving.
  • Don’t wait until the last month pre-calving to gain BCS. Cows gain very little condition (even when feed generously) in the last month before calving because the energy requirements for maintenance and pregnancy are so high.

Transition Period Pre-calving – Feeding

Once BCS is determined pre-calving, cows that are at, above or below targets can be managed differentially according to their BCS.

Allocate the correct amount of feed

Avoid overfeed cow pre-calving.  In the two to three weeks pre-calving, slightly restrict energy intake in cows that are at or above BCS targets.

Cows at or greater than BCS 5.0 – 90% of daily requirement
ME + approx. DM requirements 2-3 weeks pre-calving
Liveweight ME requirement DMI requirements kgDM
350 76 6.9
400 84 7.6
450 92 8.4
500 100 9.2
550 107 9.7

Cows below BCS targets should be fed 100% of their daily requirements.

Cows less than BCS 5.0 – 100% of daily requirement
ME + approx. DM requirements 2-3 weeks pre-calving
Liveweight ME requirement DMI requirements kgDM
350 85 7.7
400 94 7.5
450 102 9.3
500 111 10.1
550 119 10.8
These are eaten figures and need to include wastage. ME = 11MJ/Kg DM
  • Earlier recommendations to “steam up your springers” or feed as much as possible to pre-calving cows will result in greater BCS loss, reduced feed intake and increased risk of metabolic disorders post-calving.
  • It is important to note that individual cows within a herd that have a lower voluntary dry matter intake pre-calving (e.g. less than the herd allowance) may have an increased risk of metabolic and infectious diseases postpartum and should be monitored.

Choose the type of feed pre-calving

  • Choose feeds pre-calving based on cow energy requirements (MJ ME), and then feed cost and availability.
  • The type of feed pre-and post-calving will determine if feed composition, such as protein, fibre or carbohydrate type, are important considerations. Also, the composition of feeds and amount being fed can affect the mineral composition of the diet, which is important to consider for metabolic disorders.
  • In a predominantly pasture-based system, there is no benefit from increasing the proportion of non-structural carbohydrates in the diet pre-calving.
  • There is no need to feed extra sugar or starch pre-calving, unless cows will be eating a diet high in sugar and starch post-calving and require transitioning onto this diet.
  • Long chop fibre (e.g. hay, straw, silage) is required in the diet if cows are eating high levels of sugar and/or starch (e.g. fodder beet, swedes, maize grain, barley).
    • In this situation, a fibre source is required to maintain recommended NDF content and efficient rumen function.
    • If the diet is predominantly pasture, pasture silage or maize silage, there is no nutritional basis for feeding additional fibre (e.g. straw) to springing cows. However, straw or hay can play a role in keeping cows content and reducing pugging damage if trying to control energy intake in a grazing situation during wet conditions.
  • Prior to calving, cows require approximately 12% of their diet as crude protein 
    • In pasture based systems, protein requirements will typically be met. High-quality pastures during winter/early spring generally contain 15 – 20% crude protein.
    • Where pasture is a smaller proportion of the diet or there is a low protein feed, e.g. maize and fodderbeet, then pasture silage can be added during the pre-calving period to meet protein requirements.
    • Research in pasture-based systems indicated there are no performance benefits when a low protein supplement replaced a proportion of pasture in the diet, and consequently reduced total and rumen degradable protein intake pre-calving.

Transition Period - Post calving

During the colostrum period, cows should be offered unrestricted access to good quality pasture or supplements. These animals should be considered the top priority when it comes to allocating feed to different mobs. If cows are removed from high sugar or starch feeds (e.g. fodder beet) during the colostrum period, they will require re-transitioning if they are to continue eating this feed through early lactation.

Should I feed straw to my springers?

Straw can be used to reduce the energy content of the diet; however, it provides no nutritional benefits, unless the diet is high in sugar or starches.

Can you prevent BCS loss immediately post calving?

To adapt to the negative energy balance immediately post-calving, and provide the necessary energy for milk production, the cow mobilises large amounts of body tissue (primarily fat, with smaller amounts of protein), which results in a loss of BCS.

Little can be done in the first few weeks post-calving to alter this BCS loss. Increasing a cow’s energy intake will simply increase milk production rather than reduce BCS loss during this time. The primary regulators of the performance of the transition and early lactating dairy cow are BCS at calving, and nutrition management pre-calving.

For more information see:

Last updated: Sep 2023
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