Time for a transition cow management adjustment?

Standard operating practices can be another name for ruts. Don’t get me wrong, consistency is important, as long as it is being evaluated. But unevaluated, it can be an unthinking approach to an old problem that may be creating new problems.

cows laying in a pen in a barn

Managing transition cows is often an area in which we try to standardize the experience and the work as much as possible. While that is important, there is also wisdom in monitoring the results and making adjustments as needed. That is what came up when Michigan State University Extension educators Phil Durst and Stan Moore sat down with Norm Buning at Buning Dairy in Falmouth, Michigan.

In our interview, recorded as a Michigan State University Extension dairy team podcast, Buning shared his current management approach and the adjustments they have made. His theoretical dry period length had been 60 days, but because they dry cows off once per week, the variation of actual dry period lengths was 54-60 days. Cows were identified for dry-off based on projected calving dates and on Fridays, cows that would be < 60 days dry at the next Friday were dried off. However, he observed, and it was confirmed by analysis through his feed team, that these cows didn’t produce as much milk as they should in the subsequent lactation, especially the three-year-olds. Therefore, they moved the dry-off date one week and now are drying off at 60-66 days with better results.

He also has targets for minimum number of days for cows and heifers in the close-up pen; heifers: 21 days, cows: 18 days and dams of twins: 28 days. It can be simply a matter of tracking days until projected calving and moving cattle to the close-up pen on time. But breeding is not an exact procedure. Using a double Ov-Synch protocol, there are times when fewer cows are diagnosed pregnant at herd check and times when they seemed to have “hit it out of the park,” with the majority being diagnosed pregnant. That creates waves of cows to calve rather than an even distribution by day. Crowding in the close-up/calving area is a situation he prefers to avoid. Therefore, they make adjustments in the cow’s time in the pen when they see a crowd coming. While he doesn’t like to shorten the time in the close-up pen, it can be the lesser of “two evils” compared to overcrowding.

Fresh cows at Buning Dairy go into a fresh pen to make sure they get off to a good start. Buning’s target was 21 days in the fresh pen, followed by a move to the high group, with its more energy-dense ration. Again, it can be relatively simple to watch the calendar, and while he kept an eye on the calendar, he certainly kept the other eye on the cows.

Fresh cows began experiencing ketosis around two weeks after calving. Ketosis is caused by energy output (in milk) being greater than energy intake. Energy intake can be deficient for any number of reasons including other health issues, crowding of feed space and feed problems. But Buning believed that none of those were the primary cause of the ketosis and began moving cows that were doing well after calving – cows with no problems, eating and ruminating well – to the high group by 10 days in milk. Hitting the higher energy ration provided the nutrients these cows needed to keep advancing.

Sometimes, farmers will fall back on a set of recommendations and consider that they are doing what is “right,” while not really managing. Management is about monitoring the outcomes to see if the results are what they are supposed to be and making adjustments if they are not.

While it may be easy to think that as we manage cows, everything is remaining constant, the reality is that there are always changes taking place -  cow numbers, feed quality, weather, and more. An astute farmer recognizes changes that occur and tweaks, adjusts, and adapts so that the results keep getting better.

Top managers like Norm Bunning know that if they want to remain in the top tier in their industry, they have to continue to improve their management practices. Top managers don’t settle for industry standards, they look beyond industry standards and set higher goals.

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