Fresh dairy cows are the most susceptible to disease especially within the first 2 weeks after calving. During this period, cows are in a negative energy balance and naturally have a depressed immune system. Cows are in a negative energy balance since their feed intake cannot supply enough energy needed to support milk production. These cows are predisposed to microbial and metabolic diseases, such as metritis, displaced abomasum, hypocalcemia (milk fever), ketosis and ruminal acidosis. Management and feeding programs have a huge impact on the present and future lactations of a cow, so special measures must be taken during the close-up and fresh cow period to prevent these problems.

  • Close-up Management: Feeding programs and management of dry cows and close-up cows have a direct impact on their milk production, health, and reproductive performance. The diet must provide adequate but not excessive amounts of energy to the cows without increasing their body condition. Over-conditioned cows eat less after calving and have a higher probability of developing sub-clinical and clinical hypocalcemia (milk fever) and ketosis. Adequate, but not excessive protein nutrition, is important for reproduction and optimum immune function after calving.  In addition, close-up cows must be kept in a stress-free environment, with adequate feedbunk space (at least 3 feet per cow), adequate resting space (one stall per cow or 100 square feet per animal in composted bedded pack barns) and facilities with fans and sprinklers to minimize the heat stress.
  • Housing:  Ideallyfresh cows must be placed in a separate area of the barn. This will decrease the competition with other milking cows for feed and resting (one stall per cow or 100 square feet per animal in composted bedded pack barns). By keeping the fresh cows in a separate area, a special nutritional program can be provided, maximizing intake and decreasing the severity of negative energy balance. The separation of the fresh cows can reduce the time that they spend in the holding pens, increase the feeding time, and decrease the exposure of these animals to sick cows. It is important to remember that this group of animals is immunocompromised.
  • Feeding program: The feeding program must contain high quality forages to increase the dry matter intake and decrease the severity of negative energy balance. Particle size of forages must stimulate chewing and salivation, increasing ruminal pH and maintaining rumen fill. Rapidly fermentable starch sources, such as high moisture corn, should be avoided and replaced with dry shell corn instead.  Fat supplementation must be kept at a low level, because high levels of fat in the diet may decrease the dry matter consumption.  Feed must be available at least 22 hours per day to increase the dry matter intake.
  • Disease Detection and prevention: Daily measurements of body temperature and monitoring feed intake, rumination (cud chewing), external appearance and behavior should be done to aid in the early detection of diseases. Cow side tests and precision technologies are tools that can help farmers with the early detection of diseases. Although it is important to remember that the technologies should not substitute for visually observing cows. The main metabolic and infectious diseases that affect fresh cows are:
  • Fatty Liver and Ketosis Syndrome: To compensate for the negative energy balance, the body mobilizes fat reserves which if mobilized too quickly or in too large of amounts can accumulate in the liver and compromise liver function. To prevent this condition, excessive body weight loss must be prevented. Cows should calve with a body condition score between 3 and 3.5 and gradually lose 0.5 to 0.75 body condition score over the next 60 days. Dry matter intake must be stimulated, and during the dry period cows need to receive a low energy diet to stimulate the intake.
  • Rumen Acidosis: This condition is marked by increased intake of a low fiber or high-energy diet when the rumen is still adapting to dietary transition changes. The rumen papillae are not adapted to absorb the acids produced with higher energy diets and the cow will develop acidosis.  Due to the sorting behavior, the prevention of this condition is complicated, but the most important factor is to offer slower digestible carbohydrates, such as dry shell corn.
  • Displaced Abomasum (DA): The major risk period for the development of a DA is in early lactation.  Hypocalcemia (low blood calcium) and metritis are factors that can increase the incidence of the DA.
  • Endometritis: This disorder is the inflammation of the uterus without systemic disease, characterized by purulent discharge. Endometritis is associated with reduced feed intake and resulting severe negative energy balance, and a decreased immune function. Commonly this disease will not cause mortality or reduction in the milk production, but it will affect the reproduction of the animal and results in an increased number of days to first service and decreased conception rate.

Authors: Joel Phillipe Costa e Souza and Donna M. Amaral-Phillips, Ph.D.

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