The goal of fresh cow programs is to transition cows into high production while ensuring a healthy return to reproductive cyclicity. Shortly after calving, lactation energy demands start to compete for nutrients. Reduced nutrient availability can then leave fresh cows more susceptible to diseases and reproductive challenges. This often causes a delay in days to first service and an increased risk of culling. According to research from the University of Minnesota, more cows are culled during the first 60 days in milk than at any other point in lactation.

One of the most common reproductive challenges facing cows in early lactation is metritis. Most often diagnosed within the first 10 days in milk, metritis is defined as a uterine infection accompanied by inflammation involving all layers of the uterus. It is characterized by the presence of foul smelling, watery vaginal discharge. Fever also may be noticed, with temperatures of 103 degrees F or higher within the first 10 days in milk.

Cory Meyers is a veterinarian with Mid-Maryland Dairy Vets, a four-state practice based in Hagerstown, Md., with eight active practitioners. At his practice, they preach disease prevention, and Meyers has identified several metritis risk factors:

  • Heifers or cows that have experienced dystocia, retained placenta or other problems at calving such as milk fever or ketosis. 
  • Herds under-feeding protein or over-feeding energy.
  • Over-crowding pens based on bed-pack space and feedbunk space leads to lower dry matter intake as well as social anxiety and immunological stress. Over-crowding also leads to a greater incidence of stillbirths and creates a dirtier environment, often leading to higher bacterial levels that can be transferred to the reproductive tract.
  • Co-mingling heifers with mature cows in an overcrowded environment results in a higher incidence of metritis in these heifers because of higher levels of social stress and lower feed intake.
  • Cows with body condition score exceeding 4.0, lame cows, and cows having twins also are susceptible to lower dry matter intake, and thus a higher incidence of metritis.
  • Heat stress increases incidence rate in herds without significant heat abatement.

Metritis is a disease which cannot be prevented entirely. However, in herds with excellent management, the impact of metritis can be mitigated. According to Kevin Ratka, a veterinarian in central Minnesota, producers who focus on fine-tuning their transition ration and fresh cow programs have seen real reductions in metritis.

“I feel that producers have improved on preventing metritis by putting more emphasis on transition cow rations and how they manage the pre-fresh cow,” Ratka says. “There is more focus on cow comfort, making sure there is adequate bunk space available, trying to limit pen moves, and implementing some kind of fresh cow monitoring.”

The goal of every dairy’s fresh cow program is to maximize early lactation production while quickly returning cows to healthy reproductive cyclicity. Producers should work with their herd veterinarian to establish farm and management protocols to prevent transition challenges.