Optimum transitioning: It’s like herding cats

We all dream of the simple life, where minimal effort results in massive income with no stress and all the free time we want – although on some days, we will settle for just one thing to go as planned. We all know the well-worn metaphor, “It’s like herding cats”. It is a picture of chaos; of something unmanageable, or nearly impossible to organise; of frantic chasing and very little success … a frustrating task involving a lot of variables all heading off to wreak havoc in their own direction. Dare I say that this is not a situation you want to encourage in your own business, especially when it comes to optimum transitioning.

I have recently been doing a lot of thinking about how decisions are made on our dairy farms. There are often many variables that we try to measure, but we fail to corral them all together to get a clear picture of what we are dealing with. If we focus on only one area, such as feed cost per tonne, we could find ourselves making decisions that will ultimately hurt other, more important variables (like fertility) and what seems like a good decision today, might end up hurting us tomorrow.

The movement of cows from one lactation to another, the transition phase, is one such area in which I feel we might do well with a complete overhaul in our thinking. Over the next few editions, I would like to challenge your concepts around what you have always done. It is only by thinking about our thinking that we determine whether our thoughts are still valid. As time moves by and opportunities and ideas evolve, we need to ensure that our thoughts and our concepts keep up.

Factors in optimum transitioning

Before we start, let us have a look at all the factors involved in the successful transition of cows in our herd:

  • Drying off the cows and the treatments associated with this action.
  • Feeding a so-called low-quality ration for 39 days in the far-off period.
  • Bringing cows into the close-up (steam-up) pen for 21 days before calving.
  • The feeding costs of both rations.
  • Ease of management.
  • Your specific calving system.
  • The veterinary and staff cost of complicated calvings.
  • Colostrum and calf management.
  • The cow’s ability to bounce back into lactation.
  • Losses to transition diseases (you still pay for these, even though you do not actually transfer the money anywhere).
  • The mental cost of having sick cows and a system that does not work for you.

There is too much going on here. We need simplicity!

Calculating costs

In order to calculate the cost of optimum transitioning vs suboptimum transitioning, I invite you to consider the following:

  1. Add together the direct costs as follows:
  • Far-off feed cost per day × number of days
  • + close-up feed cost per day × number of days
  • + cost per treatment at dry-off (please note that I have purposely excluded vaccines from this cost as they are essential and not an area of cost saving)
  • + cost of treatments at calving
  1. Add the costs of diseases
    You have spent a lot of money getting her there, but how successful have you been (Table 1)? If we put a cost to each case (for example, 11 metritis cases × R2 780 = lots of money), we can start calculating what each month, or season, or year is actually costing. Now, divide the total cost by the number of cows in the herd to get an average cost per cow.
  1. Add it all up
    When you add the direct and disease costs together, you get your transition invoice – a one-stop number that describes the whole situation. Your transition invoice is the cage for your cats!
Disease (per case)Cost (AUD)Cost (ZAR)
Clinical milk fever$350R3 800
Subclinical milk fever $60R650
Retained foetal membranes$315R3 420
Metritis$250R2 700
Left displaced abomasum$340R7 000
Ketosis$320R3 400
Table 1 The cost of transition diseases (source: Dairy Australia, 2010).

Practical example

Can you see from Table 2 that focusing on only the cost of your dry cow meal might lead you astray? Farm 2 thinks they are spending under R600 per cow when, in reality, they are actually spending almost R2 000!

FarmDirect costsDisease costsTransition invoice
Farm 1R1 428,11R3 127,12R4 555,23
Farm 2R583,34R1 359,45R1 942,79
Farm 3R1 436,60R1 192,50R2 629,10
Table 2 Real-world costs from three farms as an example of calculating the transition invoice (all costs have been converted to a cost per cow in herd for easy comparison).


We need to be able to measure the success of the entire system in order to understand if we are making the right call. If we never record the illness rate on our farm, how will we know if we are fixing anything? Use Table 3 to calculate your own transition invoice. Only then will you be able to corral the cats and keep them all moving in a predictable direction towards optimum transitioning.

Cost/case (ZAR)x Number of cases per year= Total cost of treatment
Clinical milk feverR3 800
Subclinical milk fever (rule of thumb = 9,75 x number of clinical cases)R650
Retained foetal membranesR3 420
MetritisR2 700
Left displaced abomasumR7 000
KetosisR3 400
Annual losses to transition diseases
Cost per cow in milk
Table 3 Calculate your own transition invoice.
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Alex Jenkins is a technical specialist in the ruminant team at Chemuniqué and holds a master's degree in animal science from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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