Improving Transition Delivers Overall Performance Increase

16 November 2020

When William Barnett was dissatisfied with the performance of his fresh calvers in early 2018, it set off a number of changes which have seen performance, health and fertility all improve.  Working with dairy nutrition consultant Simon Smith, the root causes were identified allowing cows to transition more effectively.

Cows that fail to transition into lactation smoothly are a major drain on dairy performance, according to Simon Smith who suggests that a cow that fails to be firing properly in the first 30 days of lactation will suffer production losses across the whole of her lactation and potentially into the next.

“If a cow doesn’t transition well and suffers problems around calving then she will never fully recover,” he says.  “Transition problems tend to cascade with, for example, milk fever leading to further metabolic problems, ketosis, prolonged negative energy deficit and fertility problems.  It is an area where farmers can benefit from an increased focus, and this requires sound protocols and measurement of performance.”

William Barnett runs a herd of 276 Holstein Friesians at Woodend Farm near Oxford.  The cows calve all year round and graze during the summer as this is a requirement of the milk contract.

They are TMR fed in the winter and are split into five groups – far off dry, close up dry, fresh cows, high yielders and low yielders.  The diet is based on grass and maize silage, caustic treated wheat, straw and a blend.

“When I first visited the farm in June 2018, there was a high incidence of transition diseases,” Simon explains.  “Milk fever, clinical ketosis and LDAs were much higher than expected.  Clinical milk fever was running at 24 cases per year, affecting around 9% of the herd while over 10% of the herd had clinical ketosis.

“This was having a direct impact on fertility, leading to extended lactation all of which was pushing up costs of production.”

Assessing the herd, he identified that cows in the far off dry and close to calving groups were carrying too much condition, which was largely due to the high number of long and extended lactations which were a consequence of poor fertility due to poor transition.  At the same time feed rates in lactation were too high as yields were being chased.

“As a result of cows calving in excess condition, they were losing too much condition in the first month post-calving with an extended period of negative energy balance.

“To try and compensate for the weight loss in fresh calved cows the high yield diet was over-complicated and expensive with a number of supplements included including propylene glycol, omega 3s and prairie meal in an attempt to maintain yields and recover reproductive performance.

“What was evident was the vicious circle of poor transition.  Cows transition badly, take longer to get back in calf, have an extended lactation and put on too much weight meaning they transition badly again.”

Following discussions with William and Seamus, a plan was put in place to systematically address the issues and the root causes.

The starting point was to reduce the specification of the low yielder diet to eliminate excessive increases in body condition in late lactation cows.  A far off dry ration was formulated based on straw and grass silage, supplemented with minerals.  The close up cow diet was also reviewed to be a low DCAB diet based on straw and maize silage.

“The focus was to make sure cow condition at calving was on target.  At the same time we needed to help reduce the potential consequences of negative energy balance.  To do this Pro-keto Dry from Trouw Nutrition was added to the close up dry and fresh calved diets.

Pro-Keto is a supplementary dietetic feed that reduces the risk of ketosis.  Developed to support high yielding dairy cows, it includes all the essential ingredients required for a good start to lactation and the maintenance of healthy liver function.  Glycerine and propylene glycol supply highly effective extra energy while niacin, choline and vitamin B12 improve the efficiency of overall energy utilisation.

“All fresh calved cows experience a period of negative energy balance due to higher demands and reduced feed intakes,” Simon continues.  “They try to compensate by mobilising back fat that is metabolised in the liver to release energy.  In high yielding cows, the liver can not metabolise all the released fat leading to ketosis, a problem that is on the increase in the UK with an estimated 30% of cows having sub-clinical ketosis.

“The energy sources in Pro-Keto can help cows increase energy intake rapidly and are immediately available.  The added minerals and vitamins help to improve the overall efficiency of energy and fat metabolism enabling the cow to make full use of other energy sources in the diet.  Flavourings ensure it is highly palatable to promote a bigger overall appetite.”

Pro-keto is now the only supplement in the fresh cow diet which has been simplified with the focus on creating a healthy rumen to allow the cow to supply as much of the protein and energy she needs rather than supplying it through purchased ingredients.

“Now, two years after we made the first changes we are seeing the benefits of better transition in terms of reduced metabolic problems, high yields and reduced feed costs per litre (see table).

“By breaking the body condition cycle and getting cows transitioning better, with improved fertility and high yields.  This has allowed the diet to be simplified, which combined with better production has reduced feed costs significantly, boosting margins,” Simon Smith concludes.

Performance at Woodend Farm



August 2019

August 2020

Clinical milk fever cases in last 12 months



Clinical ketosis cases in last 12 months



LDAs in last 12 months



Rolling yield per cow

8500 litres

9500 litres

Average yield per day of cows 30-90 days in milk

39.5 litres

42.5 litres

Average yield per day of heifers 30-90 days in milk

31.4 litres

32.0 litres

Feed rate per litre



Feed costs per litre