Dairy calving transition period tools

Mar 4, 2020

The transition period can be a difficult time to manage a dairy herd's nutritional needs. You'll have some cows that are eating 25 to 30 pounds of dry matter, and some heifers and smaller cows that are eating 12 to 15 pounds. Tim Clark discusses how dairy producers can make up the difference and ensure that cows are getting consistent nutrient delivery.


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Tom:    I'm Tom Martin. And the last time on the Block Talk podcast, we spoke about cold-weather calving and early calving nutritional needs. And today, we're talking with Tim Clark, nutritionist with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements, specifically about dairy calving and tools for dairy producers during the transition period. And to start off with, Tim, can you explain what the typical production cycle of a dairy operation is and how important nutrition is in those phases of production?

Tim:     Yes. The majority of our products are designed for beef cattle, but we have several that really are excellent nutritional tools for dairymen. Most dairies are going to be feeding a TMR to both the lactating animals and the dry cows. In general, animals are going to be lactating 10-11 months out of the year and then they have a two month dry period where they’re not lactating. During that time, their diet is very much like a beef animal’s diet: high forage, high fiber and low energy; pretty much a maintenance-type diet. But then they transition quite quickly from that low-forage, low-energy diet into a lactating diet. And, during that transition period, with our supplements we can really help them navigate some of the nutritional and management challenges that we have.

Tom:    What are some of the challenges that are associated with calving on the dairy?

Tim:     A lot of metabolic disorders can happen around the time of calving, such as retained placentas or fetal membranes, which can impact the uterine health. [You can] end up with uterine infections that can impact reproduction. A lot of the energy status can [be impacted]. [If animals] are prone to ketosis, which is basically a metabolic disorder where they’re low on energy and have high ketones, [this can] impact dry matter intake. So, we can impact those. And another one, just due to the rapid onset of lactation, is milk fever or low blood calcium; that will impact dairy cows specifically around the time of calving.

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Tom:    And are there specific times of the year when these problems are more common?

Tim:     Yes, dairies will be calving year-round. They try to have an even number of animals calving each month, except during extremely cold weather. A lot of dairy people will choose not to have their heifers calve during January and December just due to the risk of having animals calve during the severe winter when there is a chance of frozen teats and [other] challenges. Plus, we’re busy with moving snow and the holidays. So, typically [in] February, March [and] April, we will see an increase in the number of animals that are calving, and that overcrowds the system. We’ll have calving pens designed for 20-head and we’ll have 30 or 40 in there sometimes. So, the spring months do seem to be a real challenge. The other thing that can impact it is we've just come through the winter. And if we've had some over-conditioned cows, we could have some dry cows losing weight during the dry period, which can increase the risk for ketosis. So, [there are] a lot of challenges going on in that timeframe. You know, humans don't like the weather that we have in that transition period of winter to spring when it's 60 degrees one day and 30 the next. That really creates challenges for cattle as well, both from just throwing their feed intake off [and] increasing other health risks, just like what we see in that crappy weather timeframe.

Tom:    Well, what are the benefits of using a self-fed supplement like CRYSTALYX? Are there specific challenges that self-fed supplements can help overcome?

Tim:     Yep. A lot of dairy nutritionists will balance the ration, and everything looks perfect on paper. But specifically, that last month before calving, [and] the first couple [of] weeks right after calving, it's hard to have a perfect diet for every animal in those groups. You’ll have some cows that are eating 25 to 35 pounds of dry matter, but you'll have some heifers and some smaller cows that are eating 12 to 15 pounds. So, that’s a huge [difference] — it’s almost double from the bottom to the top on the amount of feed, and we have to pick a number. So, we pick an average, shooting for the middle, but those animals that don't eat that amount every day are really coming up short on critical nutrients like selenium, vitamin E, trace minerals and vitamins.

            So, it can really impact that consistent nutrient delivery every day and that's where our self-fed supplements come in. They’re much more nutrient-dense than our typical beef products; probably double the mineral profile and our vitamin levels are quite a bit higher just to address the nutritional challenges that dairy cattle will have. So, it’s outside of the TMR. Cattle can consume on it and, you know, consume [anywhere from] a quarter to half a pound. They're getting a high percentage of what their target daily amount would be.

Tom:    So, Tim, just curious about this — how are the blocks placed and fed in your typical dairy operation? Is it a one-scenario-fits-all or something more?

Tim:     No, every dairy is a little bit unique. If it's a freestall setting, it works quite well to place the barrels at the end of the feeding area in the freestall, right in the feed alley. We're shooting for one barrel for every 20 to 30 head. With our dry cows, often they're in a dry lot or a pasture setting. In those, they can be placed in the dry lot or out in the pasture. It's a good way to force the cows to get some exercise. Move it away from the loafing areas; they’ll seek it out and make a trip to it every day. And if it's a small pen where the animals are in a loose housing environment, it's kind of whatever works best for the operation they can fit it in the feed bunk or in the loose housing setting. So, [its] quite flexible on where they can go.

Tom:    Well, producers of course want to know what kind of outcome they can anticipate. What results can be expected when you're using a self-fed supplement?

Tim:     Like on the beef side, in general we’ll improve overall dry matter intake or feed intake. Farms that are tracking what the cows are eating will see a two- or three-pound improvement on dry matter intake. You still have the variation within the group, but when she's only eating 20 pounds and we can get a two-pound improvement, that's a 10% improvement in feed intake, that and the mineral vitamin delivery. We all have good records of historically what has been our rate of retained placentas or ketosis, milk fevers. We can just track a reduction in those numbers. And with vet cost and medicine cost, you don’t have to get much of a reduction for these products to really give you a nice 3 to 4:1 return on investment.

Tom:    So, which specific CRYSTALYX products would you recommend for dairy producers during the calving and the transition periods?

Tim:     We have our Dry Cow™ product, which can be fed through the whole dry cow period. It’s got organic trace minerals, organic selenium [and] high levels of vitamin E. It’s a general product that works in a lot of different settings and can be fed all the way through the calving period and post-calving. If producers are having some milk fever challenges or blood calcium challenges, we have a product called Close-Up™, which is like the dry cow formula but has some anionic salts. That is designed to be fed two to three weeks before calving in that close-up period. It could be on the dry cow prior to that and then move up to Close-Up. Because of the anionic salts, we can’t feed [our Close-Up product] after calving. And then, if we don’t need the protein [or] we’re just looking for more of a mineral supplement, that's where our  Transition Stress Formula™ comes into play. It's lower intake [but it] delivers similar nutrient levels; just at quarter to a third of a pound. It's a mineral product that could be fed before or after calving.

Tom:    Tim Clark, he is a nutritionist with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements. Thank you, Tim.

Tim:     Thank you, Tom.