Transition Cow Stress: Are You Part of the Problem?

Brandi Gednalske Regional Sales Manager SoyChlor & SoyPlus

Intermittent stress is part of any dairy cow’s daily life.

Brandi Gednalske

But transition cows are especially vulnerable to additional stressors that can cause major disruptions to their health, welfare, productivity and ultimately your bottom line. Cows crave consistency and routine, even during the transition period which occurs three weeks prior to and following calving. So, it’s no surprise that she is especially vulnerable to stress during a time of so much change when she is putting an enormous amount of energy into the final stages of fetal growth and the beginning of milk production. But could we be doing more to minimize the stress?

Stress is one of the most detrimental and avoidable costs (to welfare and ROI) that exists on any farm. Stressors can be environmental (heat, cold, ventilation and air quality) or social (regrouping and mixing parities within a group). But some are caused by us, and sometimes in ways that we aren’t even aware of. If you’ve been diligent in taking steps to minimize transition cow stressors but still witness the effects of stress on your cows, consider the following ways that your own behavior could be modified to make improvements.

1.Decrease the need to enter pens. Make slight alterations to the design of your pens to allow workers to walk around the outside to monitor pre and post-fresh cows.

Think of the ways you directly interact with transition cows. You might be visualizing the times you move cows from pen to pen, perform herd health checks when cows may be locked up and treated, or check urine pH levels in the pre-fresh pen. But what about the times when you’re simply entering the pen to walk the cows? It is possible that cows perceive a human simply walking through their pen as a threat and thus react with a stress response? Combatting that stress response needs to be a priority if smooth and successful transitions are your goal.

2. Invest in cow wearable technology like monitors and sensors and/or install cameras around the pens to watch for signs of calving, health events, etc.

Understandably we must consistently monitor transition cows for signs of calving, health and well-being, but rather than entering their pen to do those checks could we find alternative ways? Heifers in particular will halt or slow early stage labor if they are interrupted, leading to major setbacks in the rest of the calving process and then health and production losses in the subsequent lactation. Monitoring behavior and physiologic changes around calving has become more and more feasible in recent years thanks to the development of multiple sensors and devices that can be placed directly on or in the cow. These devices have been successfully implemented in many commercial settings. Cameras can also be a cost-effective strategy for monitoring transition cows without having to enter the pen. Proper placement and adequate coverage with a clear picture are key in establishing a successful camera monitored transition herd. Both options can work for dairies of all shapes, sizes and locations to reduce human-animal interactions and thus the stress response cows feel. If monitoring cows by way of technology is not a feasible option, consider altering the facility slightly to incorporate a walkway around the entire pen.  Simply keeping a human outside of the pen rather than physically entering can have a positive impact on a cow’s stress response.



3. Properly train any person working with transition cows. Appropriate handling and treatment techniques should be accompanied by a positive attitude and quiet and confident demeanor. 

When handling transition cows becomes necessary, keep in mind that quiet, calm and confident are the key components to successful interactions. Research has shown that conversation in a quiet tone for a long duration even causes fear, which could elicit a biological stress response.  Cows also view shouting as negatively as the use of an electric prod. Studies have shown up to a 20% variation in milk yield and composition among commercial dairies due primarily to differing cow handling practices.

4. Positive reinforcement training starting the day of birth and continuing throughout a cow’s lifetime will elicit far fewer stress responses in all stages of life, including transition.

Positive reinforcement training is widely used in other animal industries (think dogs) but less-so with our dairy cows. However, this could be a very viable way to reduce stress response in our transition cows. Bremner, 1997 and Sutherland and Huddard, 2012 found positive effects to training and familiarizing dairy heifers to the milking procedure and environment prior to their first lactation. Much research has been done in other livestock species on the impacts of acclimating and training animals to human interactions with highly positive results to health and production. Tirloni et al., 2013 found cows who were extensively handled throughout their lifetime in a calm and quiet manner were calmer when restrained. While young animals are more responsive to training, adult dairy cows have been found to be slightly less willing so starting training young and maintaining throughout their lifetime is important.



Direct animal-human interactions are only a part of the total stress story in a dairy cow’s life.  Social, environmental and management stressors also play a role in the overall well-being of dairy cows. However, if we don’t get the human-animal interaction piece right it is unlikely that the rest of the puzzle pieces will fall into place, particularly during the most stressful period in the cow’s life – transition.


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