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Transition Cow Feeding Strategies
by Michael F. Hutjens


  • A close dry cow feeding program will minimize metabolic disorders and stimulate dry matter intake after calving.
  • Fresh cowfeeding programs allow cows to move smoothly into the early lactation feeding system. Cows need to be managed as individuals as response time varies.
  • Glucose precursors, anionic salts, yeast culture, and higher levels of micronutrients can have economic and health benefits.


The close-up dry cow period starts 21 days before calving. If this period is less than 10 days, 24 percent of the dry cows will not received the specific ration for the minimum five days needed to achieve desired benefits. Iowa workers identified four physiological goals that the close up dry cow program must achieve.

  1. Adapt the rumen for the higher energy diet fed postpartum
  2. Maintain normal blood calcium levels
  3. Build and stimulate the immune system
  4. Maintain a positive energy balance to avoid subclinical ketosis

Energy balance can be negative for several reasons.

  • Dry matter intake can drop 30 percent prior to calving
  • The unborn calf is rapidly growing
  • Cows with twin pregnancy have lower DMI, earlier decline in DMI, and a great fetal mass.
  • Formation of colostrum and mammary tissue regeneration occurs.

Body weight loss and fat mobilization can be occurring. Non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) originate almost entirely from mobilized fatty. Diet fatty acids are transported as triglycerides and phospholipids. The presence of NEFA in plasma above normal (>0.3 mEq/l) indicates that fat is being mobilized in response to negative energy balance. Plasma NEFA increase 3 to 10 days prepartum, peak at calving (0.5 to 0.8 mEq/l), and decline postpartum (< 0.6 mEq/l) in healthy cows. Management strategies during the close up dry period are listed below.

  • Increase grain to 5 to 8 pounds of dry matter
  • Increase crude protein to 15 to 16 percent using undegraded intake protein (UIP) sources
  • Add 1/4 to 1/3 pound of fat per day
  • Maintain 5 to 8 pounds of long forage
  • Consider feeding 7 to 10 pounds DM from the high group TMR (contains UIP, fat, grain, and higher quality forages) plus the close up dry cow grain mix and long forage
  • Reduce supplemental sodium
  • Add anionic salts to prevent low blood calcium
  • Add yeast culture
  • Add niacin (6 grams per day)
  • Drench with propylene glycol (2 pound) starting 3 to 7 days before calving or feed calcium propionate (1/3 pound)
  • Maintain higher levels of trace minerals (zinc, copper, selenium, and vitamin E)


The fresh cow phase beginning at calving and extends to 2 to 3 weeks after calving. The key management factor is the ability to monitor and observe these cows to insure they are healthy when moved to the high group or are challenged with higher nutrient diets. Cows with higher dry matter intakes at calving will have higher intakes after four weeks (Figure 1). Individual cow management occurs in this phase requiring lock ups or stalls. The following evaluations should be recorded each day to assess the cow's status.

  1. Monitor feed intake by evaluating how the cow consumes or "attacks" fresh feed. Record the amount consumed or develop a scoring system (1 = < 33 percent consumed, 2 = 33 to 66 percent consumed, and 3 => 66 percent consumed). Dry matter intake guides are listed in Table 1.
  2. Record daily body temperatures until temperatures drop under 102.5 degrees.
  3. Listen for rumen movements with a stethoscope (1 to 2 rumen movements per minute).
  4. Observe uterine discharges for odors and characteristics.
  5. Conduct a ketone test on the cow's urine or milk to access energy status.

The fresh cow ration should be intermediate between the close up ration and the high group ration. Wisconsin workers suggest a shift in a ration should not be greater than 10 percent change in a nutrient (for example, changing from 0.70 Mcal lactation by 10 percent would be 0.07 unit shift in the next ration or a 0.77 Mcal). Maintain a "healthy" level of fiber and avoid high starch levels leading to off feed and acidosis. The following strategies can be considered for fresh cows.

  • Feed 3 to 5 pounds of high quality long forage
  • Consider a fresh cow top dress mixture that contains undegraded protein and digestible fiber (such as soy hulls) as an alternate energy source
  • Increase the ration nutrient concentration to adjust for lower feed intakes
  • Add yeast culture
  • Add a buffer pack to stabilize rumen pH
  • Provide 12 grams of niacin to minimize ketosis
  • Add propylene glycol (2 pound) or calcium propionate (1/3 pound) to raise blood glucose

Table 1. Estimated dry matter intake for first lactation (1200 pounds) and mature (1400 pounds) cows for the initial five weeks postpartum.

Week First lactation cows Mature cows
  -------------lb DM/cow/day---------------
1 31.0 36.5
2 35.0 42.5
3 38.0 46.5
4 40.0 49.0
5 41.5 52.5

Figure 1.Relationship between dry matter intake one day prepartum to 28 days postpartum.

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