“If you mow the grass, and you find a car, you might be a redneck.” That’s one of my favorite redneck sayings from comedian Jeff Foxworthy, as it demonstrates how not getting something done might hide a problem lurking underneath. And over the years from visiting dairies and talking with producers and dairy nutritionists around the world, I’ve come to realize that this type of procrastination and/or denial may apply to those who do not feed a negative DCAD diet to close-up dry cows.
I’ve had the experience, so too have some veterinarians that I know, of visiting dairies and being told “we don’t need a negative DCAD diet prepartum because our cows transition well. We just don’t have any issues with hypocalcemia.” Yet as the tour continues, and we walk through the maternity area, we pass by a trash can full of calcium bottles from veining cows for milk fever. That’s a great example for a Foxworthy-style one-liner. “If the trash can in your maternity pen is full of IV calcium bottles, you might not be feeding a negative DCAD diet.”
Other examples would be “If you are proud of a 10% incidence of milk fever,” or “If you have to use blanket calcium treatment on all cows postpartum,” or “If you can vein a cow in your sleep, you might not be using a negative DCAD diet.” Over the years I have seen and heard a lot of examples.
The simple truth of the matter is negative DCAD diets work. Negative DCAD diets have a long proven scientific and on-farm track record. Just look at the meta-analysis in the March Journal of Dairy Science, Santos et al., (2019), which examined 42 published experiments with data from 1,803 cows. Results showed that feeding negative DCAD diets prepartum reduced the incidence of milk fever, subclinical hypocalcemia, retained placenta and metritis. And in multiparous cows, feeding negative DCAD diets prepartum also increased milk production and fat-corrected milk.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program has developed a list of achievable transition benchmarks for dairy cows: Milk fever, <2%; displaced abomasum, <3%; retained placentas, <8%; clinical ketosis, 3% and subclinical ketosis, <15%.
(To view all of the NYCHAP benchmarks go to: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/animal-health-diagnostic-center/programs/nyschap/modules-documents/transition-cow-benchmarks).
Many dairy producers meet and even exceed these benchmarks every day. And I’ve talked with dairy nutritionists who confirm that a milk fever incidence <2% is common on dairies today, with top dairies achieving <1%. But it doesn’t happen by chance; it takes a commitment to excellent animal care—feeding negative DCAD diets, mineral analysis of feedstuffs, cow comfort, no overcrowding in close-up and fresh-cow pens and employees that deliver top notch care and feed consistently day in and day out. And while all of the problems that occur secondary to clinical or subclinical hypocalcemia have more than one contributing factor, hypocalcemia is one root cause that you can easily prevent.
Research by Rodriguez et al. (2017) showed that cows that experienced subclinical hypocalcemia, diagnosed by a serum calcium level of ≤2.14 mM, had 3.7 greater odds of developing a displaced abomasum; 5.5 greater odds of ketosis; 4.3 greater odds of metritis; 3.4 greater odds of retained placenta and 0.3 odds ratio of showing first estrus within the first 60 days in milk. Now let’s look at the cost of these problems. Research by Liang et al. (2017) calculated the cost for several transition cow diseases. They included veterinary and treatment cost, discarded milk, decreased milk production, culling, extended days open, death loss and labor. Total disease cost per affected cow was: Hypocalcemia, $246 in multiparous cows; metritis, $171 for nulliparous and $262 for multiparous cows; retained placenta $150 for nulliparous and $313 for multiparous; and displaced abomasum, $432 for nulliparous and $639 for multiparous cows. And since hypocalcemia raises the odds of other health problems occurring, the cost of disease quickly adds up and takes a toll. Those who opt not to feed negative DCAD diets prepartum may just not realize the economic benefits that are possible. When you combine the increased incidence of disorders described above with the treatment cost and lost production associated with each of the disorders, the $15 or so cost per cow per lactation to feed negative DCAD diets prepartum makes good financial sense.
When things don’t get done, like the redneck who finds a car when mowing the yard, not feeding a negative DCAD diet often leads to unexpected surprises. For your animal care to be on par with the best dairy producers in the industry, you owe it to yourself, to your cows, and quite frankly to the consuming public we serve, to take a hard look at your transition cow program and see what you can do to treat fewer cows and help cows have healthy, disease free transitions into lactation. Milk fever rates of less than 1% are achievable. Feeding a negative DCAD diet reduces the incidence of hypocalcemia. It also reduces the incidence of subclinical hypocalcemia, metritis, retained placenta, displaced abomasum, ketosis, and helps cows return to estrus sooner. In addition, in multiparous cows it also improves milk production. These are a lot of good reasons to take a second look at feeding a negative DCAD diet. That is unless you like having the excuse “I can’t visit with my mother-in-law because I have to treat a sick cow.”
Editor’s note: Dr. Brown provides technical support and educational assistance to the soy processing sales staff at Landus Cooperative, as well as SoyPlus® and SoyChlor® customers. Tim also manages the division’s academic relationships, working with research universities to continually develop product information, explore new ways to use these products, and find additional industries that can benefit from the products. He currently serves as an Adjunct Professor on the graduate faculty in the Department of Animal Sciences and Industry at Kansas State University. His professional career in university research and teaching previously spanned from 1976 to 2002. Since 2002, he has worked in the feed industry, and joined the staff at Landus Cooperative in 2009.