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Transitioning to lead feeding essential for dairy success

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Transition feeding or lead feeding is one of the most significant advances in dairy nutrition over the past 20 years, but many dairy farmers are yet to implement a successful transition feeding program pre-calving and capture its full benefits, according to Dairy Australia’s Grains2Milk program leader, Steve Little.

“Farmers who do a really good job with their lead feeding program get great results and wouldn’t even think of not doing it,” said Steve. “A net benefit of up to approximately $200 per cow per year, accounting for the extra feed and labour costs involved, can be gained. This comes from increased milk production and fertility as well as reduced costs associated with milk fever and other cow health problems. But it’s not just about the dollars – an effective transition program also makes life less stressful for dairy farmers as well as making their cows’ lives safer and easier.”

Transition feeding used to be considered mainly as a way to reduce the incidence of milk fever, a debilitating and potentially deadly condition that occurs immediately after calving when the cow’s requirement for calcium suddenly and dramatically increases. There are, however, a number of other conditions that are more likely when the cow’s metabolism and hormonal system struggle to adapt to the transition between pregnancy and lactation. These include grass tetany (low blood magnesium), ketosis and fatty liver, udder oedema, abomasal displacement, mastitis, more difficult calvings, retained foetal membranes, uterine infection, reduced fertility and milk production.

“Calving and subsequent lactation require an orchestrated series of adaptations by the cow’s system and it’s a time of increased stress for dairy cows. Giving pregnant cows a transition diet in the last three weeks before calving can dramatically reduce the chances of the cow developing these conditions. Left unchecked, these conditions all translate to one big problem – reduced productivity,” said Steve.

“Dairy Australia’s Grains2Milk and InCalf programs are working to support an industry-wide increase in the numbers of farmers effectively using transition cow management programs. As part of this, we’re working with stock feed manufacturers like Rivalea Australia to help make it easier for farmers to combine commercial pre-calving feeds with forage.”

There are four key components to an effective transition or lead feeding strategy, according to animal nutritionist, Tony Edwards, of ACE Livestock Consulting.

“Exercising the calcium mobilisation pathways by feeding cereal hay and straw, which are low in calcium, helps the cow utilise existing calcium more effectively at calving. Part of this process also involves the increased salivation as a result of chewing the cud of the coarse roughage. This saliva helps leave the system acidic, which, in turn, encourages the bones to release calcium,” said Tony.

“Providing anionic salts and supplementary calcium is the second step. An anionic (acid) diet enhances calcium utilisation. By reducing sodium and potassium relative to chloride and sulphate, limiting phosphorus intake and including sources of calcium and magnesium in the diet, we can ensure that the risk of milk fever and all the other conditions related to low blood calcium are reduced.”

Tony advises that feeding supplementary grain is also important as it helps prepare the cow’s rumen for the high level of grain contained in the cow’s feed post calving. The final piece of the puzzle is bypass protein to help with the increased protein demand during this phase.

Steve Little says that recent Australian research confirms that the optimal time for each cow to spend on the transition diet pre-calving is about 21 days. To achieve this, very accurate due calving dates obtained from early pregnancy testing is essential.

“Calving is of course a very busy time of year and while we are asking people to do a little bit extra during that busy time, the benefits that come from a good transition management program pre-calving make it well worthwhile,” explained Steve. “But it does need to be well planned and implemented. As well as getting the transition diet right, other things that need to be worked out are how the transition cows themselves are managed, how the farm’s feeding infrastructure is used to feed them and how the work routines of people on the farm are adjusted.”

Steve’s advice for farmers choosing to use a commercial lead feed product in their transition feeding program is to ensure it is soundly formulated and combined at the recommended feeding rate with a forage such as hay and silage which is low in sodium and potassium.

Rivalea Optimilk Pre-Calving Pellets from Rivalea Australia contain anionic salts, bypass protein, grain, ionophores (for better feed conversion efficiency) and organic minerals for dietary balance, making them an ideal lead feed component.

Steve and Tony agree that transition feeding is one of the most useful and important nutritional strategies available, not just economically but from a farm management perspective.

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