Transition Cow Housing and Management
Posted: February 22, 2013
Transitioning cows from the dry period into and through early lactation has a huge effect on the overall production and health of the entire herd. The way we house and manage the dry and prefresh cow ultimately determines the level of production she can achieve. A good transition means reduced stress, reduced fresh cow problems, improved production with a better start, a higher peak milk production, and more persistent lactation curve. Added benefits would be a better breeding program with a healthier cow and added longevity in the herd with a lower cull rate.
With all these benefits it would seem a no brainer that this would be a high priority area on the dairy. However, if constructed and managed correctly, using all the recommendations from your nutritionist, veterinarian, and maybe even an engineer, these can be very expensive facilities on a per stall or per square footage basis. This often leads to transition housing being reduced in the budget or cut completely out of the budget. So, rather than look at the cost per animal housed in the transition group, maybe a better way to look at cost is on a total herd basis. If 20% of the total herd is being housed in this expensive facility that cost may be $3,000 or $4,000 per animal to build, that leaves 80% of the herd that has been influenced by the proper housing and management during transition to help pay for it. In other words, for every one cow in the group there are 4 other cows in lactation giving more milk because of the facility. So now what was a high cost is less than $1,000 per cow in the herd, and much easier to pay for based on the production and health gains. This is much different than when improvements are made in the lactating cow housing, where only the one cow that uses that one stall can make the payments on that improvement. With transition cow housing you are “paying it forward” so to speak, and that investment lasts far beyond the end of this barn.
The exact type of housing will depend on your management. There are lots of ways to put the transition housing system together, as long as it meets a few “Dairy Shelter Basics”. Those basics would be: good ventilation, a dry comfortable resting area, good access to feed, good access to water, and confident footing. Specific to transition cows the access to feed would be the number one design consideration. Research has consistently shown that this group of animal should have 30 inches of feed space. So no matter the shelter type, feed space should be where the design starts. If you are considering freestalls, a two-row layout gives the best stall to feed space ratio. As for stall size, remember these girls are carrying a calf and therefore a little bigger than normal, so adding a few inches to the stall width is a good idea. Stall width of 51 to 54 inches is recommended, with a total stall length of 9 feet.
Bedded pack shelters are another option for transition housing. The bedded pack may have a comfort advantage for the fact that cows lie down and position themselves however they feel most comfortable. Space and bedding however may be a draw back with a large number of animals. If considering the bedded pack, 100 to 120 square feet of resting area per animal is recommended for dry cows and 175 to 200 square feet of area is needed for a freshening pack. Remember these girls are on vacation, so give them a little extra space.
Sometimes both the freestall and bedded pack are combined into a transition shelter. Early on dry cows are housed in freestalls and then as they move to the maternity group a large freshening pack is used for housing.
Regardless of the shelter type or style, sizing it for the proper number of animals is important. Calving is never even throughout the year, every farm has its highs and lows. With the importance of this group of animals to the overall dairy it is recommended to oversize the shelter by 25% to 30% from predicted uniform calving to allow adequate space for the high calving times of the year. If there are times of the year the transition group is crowded then the entire herd will suffer at those same times.
The take home message here is to remember the housing and management of transition cows has lasting effects on the entire herd not just the animals housed here. The investment in more space and time for transition cows will pay dividends down the road throughout the entire dairy herd.
- Agricultural Engineer, Educator