For transition cows, should we try to group our breeding?

Hoard's Dairyman: 

For transition cows, should we try to group our breeding?

Date: 
Thu, 01/19/2012

A large study of transition cows showed that nutrition has very little to do with transition cow performance. Could we make it even better with group breeding?

Yesterday, we again had the pleasure of hearing Ken Nordlund, D.V.M., speak on the Transition Cow Index (TCI) patented by the University of Wisconsin. In summary, through a large study of Upper Midwest and Southwestern dairy farms, it found that nutrition shows no relationship with the diet of the cows. Of course, this is controversial amongst nutritionists, but with the large amount of data (500,000 cows in over 4,000 herds) available, it is hard to argue against the answers.

The bottom line is, we may be undervaluing facilities for our transition cows. What is the most important factor? Bunk space.

Nordlund recommends enough bunk space for all cows to eat simultaneously, allowing the cows’ natural tendency to all eat together to work to our advantage. While that is the biggest recommendation, one of Nordlund’s other points got us thinking: Use social groups of 10 or more throughout the transition process and move these groups together.

The pecking order
While all of his recommendations were good things to think about, the social groups theory seemed like an idea worth hearing more about. The idea is that the less often new cows enter a particular pen, the less often a new pecking order needs to be established (and the less stressful for all the cows in the pen).

This makes sense on larger farms with several hundred milking cows. But we wonder if this gives even more value to synchronization programs, or is it some other sort of attempt to breed cows in a relatively similar time frame in our smaller herds. Maybe in the future we’ll have better luck with transition cows by either synchronizing breedings or just setting up breeding windows throughout the year for different groups of animals. Those groups would become lifelong, but the gates and facilities would need to be there for these groups of just 10 to 20 on a 100-cow farm to make any difference; obviously easier said than done (and financed).

We asked Nordlund about it yesterday, and he said he hadn’t heard the idea previously. Maybe those who do seasonal breeding are onto something for this reason alone. Instead of breeding for a few weeks each year, could we breed 10 times per year within three-week windows? There’s no research on it yet, but if the social interaction matters so much to transition cows, shouldn’t we focus more time and research on figuring out how to optimize it?