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Got a fresh cow pen?

Noah Litherland, Dairy Nutritionist
July 23, 2011

The four fundamental herd-performance benefits of an intense fresh cow program are:

  1. Reduced involuntary culling in the first 30 and 60 days post-freshening;
  2. Decreased postpartum disorder incidence and severity;
  3. Improved reproduction; and
  4. Increased milk yield.

The most important ingredient to fresh cow health and performance is a separate pen for them during the first 10 to 14 days in milk (DIM). When fresh cows are mixed in with the rest of the lactating herd, it is harder to find them for evaluation. With a fresh cow pen, it takes about one man-hour per day to evaluate and treat the fresh cows for a dairy with 400 cows in milk. On larger dairies, this is more effectively done with one person managing the data and checking the front of the cow (ears, eyes, attitude and nasal discharge) while the other worker takes rectal temperatures and examines the rear of the cow (uterine discharge, udder fill, rumen fill, manure consistency, and rear feet and leg health). Wireless digital cameras are inexpensive and easy to install and use and can add a new dimension to fresh cow monitoring especially to determine if cows are getting up to the feed bunk or remaining in the stall.

A second and even more valuable reason for a fresh cow pen is the ability to monitor fresh cow dry matter intake (DMI). Fresh cows and especially heifers do not typically compete well with longer DIM cows for bunk access resulting in lower than predicted DMI. Healthy fresh cow DMI should be 40 to 45 pounds per cow per day. A higher proportion of heifers in the fresh cow pen will likely reduce the total pen DMI. Feeders should record feed offered and feed refused as well as TMR dry matter to track DMI. This data will be invaluable to the dairyman, veterinarian and consultant to help assess management and nutrition programs for both dry and fresh cows. A fresh cow pen also provides the option of incorporating fresh cow feed additives into the fresh cow TMR or even top-dressing the lactation TMR with ingredients intended for fresh cows only. There are a variety of philosophies on feeding fresh cows but all agree that main outcomes should be maximizing DMI, providing adequate energy intake to minimize body fat mobilization, minimizing the risk for ruminal acidosis, provide the immune system with nutrients, and meeting mineral requirements to support early lactation. With the advent of increasing milking frequency of fresh cows for the first 14 to 42 days in milk, the dynamics of feed bunk competition for the fresh cows must be considered given the added variation of DIM and DMI. A pen for higher milking frequency fresh cows may be warranted.

A fresh cow pen should be stocked at no more than 85 percent occupancy of head lock feed space and lying space. There should be 15 percent more headlocks than fresh cows at your dairy's peak calving time. Some dairymen have installed a movable panel system to adjust the size of the fresh pen as the number of fresh cows change. Typically about 4 percent of the entire herd inventory will be in the fresh pen with a 13.5 to 14 month calving interval. Seasonal breeding and estrus synchronization programs will affect this ratio and should be adjusted accordingly.

Finding and treating sick fresh cows should be on the top of the herdsman's to do list. A fresh pen allows for routine management procedures to be instituted to prevent or reduce the severity of postpartum problems. Cows that develop less hypocalcemia and ketosis in the fresh pen have fewer complications with other postpartum disorders such as displaced abomasums, metritis and mastitis.

Another important component of a fresh cow program is data collection and interpretation. A simple approach is to use a dry erase board, or better yet, develop a data capture form (Table 1) that provides the user with a predetermined slot to record data. When paired with established fresh cow treatment protocols these data forms can be especially useful for new employees or improving communication and treatment consistency when multiple employees are working with fresh cows. More successful programs also have computer records that are updated daily and provide an opportunity to reflect on performance over time and quantitatively evaluate the transition cow program especially in the case of disease incidence.

What is the net return on investment for successful implementation of a fresh cow program? Table 2 provides a simple example of the return on investment for a fresh cow pen.

Table 1.  Example of a fresh cow health data capture form.
Temperature (Normal = 100.5-102.5):      ________________
Rumen motility (Normal = 2-3 per min.):  ________________
Manure: Normal  ____ Runny ____ Dry ____ Bloody ____
Lungs/Respiration: ________________
Nose: Normal  ____ Discharge ____
Udder: Normal  ____ Mastitis _____ Toxic Mastitis _____ Which Teat ______
Uterus: Normal  ____ Mastitis _____ Type of Discharge ________

Table 2.  Estimate of credits and debits attributable to a fresh cow program.
(Modified from Aalseth, 2005 Western Dairy Management Conference)
Credit/Debit Net Return Per Fresh Cow Explanation of Credit/Debit
Additional milk revenue $360.00 +2000 lb milk/lactation at $18/cwt
Additional feed costs $150.00 1000 lb of feed @ $0.15/lb of DM
Additional labor cost $15.00 Health check and pen movement
Additional treatment costs $20.00 Supplies and equipment
Additional facilities costs $5.00 Gates and additional headlocks
@ 85% use
Total Additional Costs ($190.00)  
Net Return/Cow $170/cow/lactation  
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