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Use of Nutraceuticals for Improving Animal Health During the Transition Period of Dairy Cows

04 June 2013

Feeding fatty acids such as omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid to peripatrurient cows can reduce common health issues such as inflammation, metabolic and infectious diseases, digestive disorders and oxidative stress, according to Italian researchers.

This is according to researchers at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart who have reviewed inflammation in cows and how to reduce severity of conditions associated with transition through gestation. 

Improved economic returns are possible, particularly if combined with good dry period care, say G. Bertoni, P. grossi and E. Trevisi at the Faculty of Agriculture in Piacenza.


We have recently reviewed the topic of inflammation in transition dairy cows (Trevisi et al., 2011a) suggesting that the periparturient period is of enormous importance in determining health, productivity and profitability, write Bertoni et al.

Dairy cows undergo tremendous adaptive changes during the transition from late gestation to early lactation. Metabolic and microbial diseases typical of this period are milk fever, retained placenta, metritis, mastitis, rumen acidosis and 80 Enhancing animal welfare and farmer income through strategic animal feeding lameness, among others.

Furthermore, the well-known reduction of immune competence around calving increases the susceptibility to infectious diseases such as metritis and mastitis. High-yielding cows are particularly susceptible to both infectious diseases and metabolic stress; moreover, they are less tolerant to management mistakes (Garnsworthy and Webb, 1999; Ward and Parker, 1999). This susceptibility is further increased in a period of reduced immunological capacity such as the transition period (Lacetera et al., 2007).


Transition Period and Inflammation

The high occurrence of metabolic and infectious diseases is responsible for the high incidence of inflammatory conditions (Bertoni et al., 2008) in the transition period (mostly after calving). The data we obtained have demonstrated that approximately 50 percent of cows in dairy farms tend to produce less milk, lose more body energy reserves, and become less fertile because they suffer from inflammation, which is not always clinically evident.

Diagnosis of such a condition is possible via acute phase protein changes: haptoglobin rise and albumin, lipoproteins, and retinol binding protein reduction (less liver synthesis of usual proteins). Interestingly, cows with the worst inflammatory indices appear affected by a larger energy deficiency and increased levels of beta-hydroxy-butyrate (BHB), confirming marked body reserve losses.

Inflammation Prevention

Excluding animals with serious health problems, cows with important inflammatory phenomena (clinical or sub-clinical) represent not less than 25 percent of cows in the herd. On average, from our data and those from Illinois University, performance of cows with inflammation was worse than that of cows without inflammation:

  • milk yield loss of 6–8 kg/day (at least in first month of lactation);
  • longer open days of between 30 and 60 days.

In Italian conditions, this means lower milk income per cow of €2.1/day in the first month (thereafter, the animals tend to recover, but some loss remains). Moreover, each day above 365 days of prolonged calving interval means a loss of at least €10/day for each cow producing 9 000–10 000 kg/lactation (van Eerdenburg, 2008).

A total loss of almost 60 + 450 = €510/cow (by taking 45 days as average extension of open days) can at least be foreseen in a high yielding farm; obviously this only affects the 25 percent of cows with mild but important inflammatory problems at calving. The loss calculated here is rough and does not take into account the decrease in milk yield and overall efficiency during the entire lactation period. Therefore, there is no doubt that one of the main objectives during the peripartum period is to reduce infections, tissue damages and inflammation.

Dry period management may play a key role in minimizing health problems, including causes of cytokine release. Among the non-feed related approaches, hygiene and prophylaxis (vaccines, de-worming treatments, adequate mastitis treatments, hoof trimming, etc.), reduction of dystocia (i.e. small calve sires), and reduction of any kind of stress in the last stage of pregnancy (and mostly at calving time) play an important role.

Nevertheless, a proper feeding management also makes it possible to maximize immune system capacity through an appropriate supply of nutrients. Furthermore, it can also prevent metabolic and digestive diseases, (milk fever, retained placenta, rumen acidosis, etc.) which occur more frequently around calving. According to our experience, the proper diet for the last 40–50 days of pregnancy would include:

  • “low” energy concentration (1.25 Mcal of NEl/kg of dry matter);
  • acceptable crude protein concentration (12–13 percent dry matter);
  • high fibre (effective) content;
  • “low” Ca and P (as well as Na and K) and high Mg contents for milk fever prevention;
  • good trace elements and vitamin supply; special attention is needed for the antioxidative systems based on nutraceuticals (for example vitamin E, ß-carotene and polyphenols) which must be available in proper amounts; the adequacy of minerals such as Cu, Se and Mn is also required because the activities of peroxide scavenging enzymatic systems such as superoxide dismutase, paraoxonase and glutathione peroxidase are linked to them.
  • high energy diet during the close-up period (days before calving) may be avoided; if applied, it must be short (8–10 days) and light (2–3 kg/day of concentrate).

Inflammation Modulation

Nevertheless, it seems unrealistic to expect an elimination of any inflammatory process. Therefore, it also seems advisable to modulate the inflammation phenomenon per se and to attenuate the systemic response to it.

Today, there are several possibilities for modulating this process, such as some common anti-inflammatory drugs formerly derived from plants (e.g. acetylsalicylic acid). Some polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), such as omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), have also been found to be effective. Lately, attention is being paid to some common and exotic plants (herbs), which are characterized by anti-inflammatory or immune-stimulatory properties, and consequently might be used as nutraceuticals.

Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). The intramuscular administration of 15 g/day of ASA, the most popular anti-inflammatory molecule, for three-four days after calving reduced the incidence of clinical disorders and the severity of the inflammatory response. Furthermore, positive effects are exerted on both milk yield and fertility (Trevisi and Bertoni, 2008).

Omega-3 fatty acids (?-3). These fatty acids have been well known as anti-inflammatory nutrients in humans since 1980 and Bertoni et al. (2006) showed that their levels in blood markedly decrease around calving. In order to keep a high plasma level, some experiments based on the oral administration of ?-3 from different sources (algae or fish oil) were carried out. All the products were rumen-protected and rich in eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids.

The administration, either alone (16.4 g/cow/day of ?3 from fish oil; Bertoni et al., 2006) or in combination with vitamin E (18.5 g/cow/day of ?3 from algae-extract; Trevisi et al., 2011b), during the peripartum increased plasma concentrations of ?-3. All cows involved in the experiments (fed ?-3 or non-treated) suffered an enhanced inflammatory condition immediately after calving, highlighted by the rise of positive acute phase proteins. However, the cows fed ?-3 were able to recover better, as confirmed by a quicker recovery of the negative (albumin, lipoproteins) and by the fast reduction of the positive (haptoglobin) acute phase proteins after calving. Interestingly, ?-3 administration also exerted a positive effect on the energy metabolism.

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This fatty acid is known to reduce milk fat content in dairy cows and to attenuate inflammatory phenomena in animals. To confirm the latter effect on dairy cows during their transition period, we administered 20 g of a mixture of CLA isomers (50 percent of c9t11 and 50 percent of t10c12 protected from rumen) from 28 days before calving to 28 days in milk.

The CLA administration determined an attenuation of the inflammatory consequences after calving, as suggested by the lower rectal temperature and by the quicker raising or recovery of some negative acute phase proteins (improved liver synthesis). Moreover, CLA treatment was able to reduce the negative energy balance, as confirmed by several indices showing an increased energy availability (increased feed intake and plasma glucose) and a reduced energy expenditure (slightly lower milk yield and fat content, lower NEFA and BHB in plasma).


Nutrient deficiencies (and excesses) can be responsible for metabolic and infectious diseases, and thus for animal welfare impairment, and overall may result in poor efficiency and income for the farm. In high yielding cows in particular, this occurs more often during the transition period and the inadequate increase of dry matter intake can be an important causal factor.

Nevertheless, low dry matter intake can also be a consequence of health disorders that induce inflammatory conditions (such as metritis, mastitis, lameness, etc.) through the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Some surveys on the transition period of dairy cows showed a relatively high frequency of inflammations, mostly subclinical, which besides infections could be justified in several ways: tissue damages, oxidative stress, digestive upsets, heat stress, placenta-uterus interactions, dystocia, excess of energy supply, etc.

To avoid inflammatory phenomena to the greatest extent possible, it is recommended to take advantage of the dry period to prevent infectious and metabolic diseases, as well as any other cause of pro-inflammatory cytokine release in the postpartum. Furthermore, it appears possible to reduce the consequences of inflammatory events by using specific drugs as well as some nutrients or nutraceutical substances (such as some long-chain unsaturated fatty acids). This can have relevant economic consequences because it appears that low inflammation during the transition period is associated with improved milk yield, low incidence of health problems and improved fertility, hence improved efficiency and animal welfare.


Bertoni, G., Trevisi, E., Risè, P. & Galli, C. 2006. Variazione degli acidi grassi ?3 ed ?6 nel plasma di bovine da latte durante il periparto. Progress in Nutrition 8(1): 22–27.

Bertoni, G., Trevisi, E., Han, X. & Bionaz, M. 2008. Effects of Inflammatory Conditions on Liver Activity in the Puerperium and Consequences for Performance in Dairy Cows. J. Dairy Sci. 91: 3300–3310.

Garnsworthy, P.C. & Webb, R. 1999. The influence of nutrition on fertility in dairy cows. In P.C. Garnsworthy & J. Wiseman, eds. Recent Advances in Animal Nutrition, pp. 39–57. Nottingham Univ. Press, UK.

Lacetera, N., Scalia, D., Mashek, D.G., Bernabucci, U. & Grummer, R.R. 2007. Effects of intravenous triacylglycerol emulsions on lymphocyte responses to mitogens in fasted dairy cows undergoing intense lipomobilization. J. Dairy Res. 74:323–328.

Trevisi, E. & Bertoni, G. 2008. Attenuation with acetylsalicylate treatments of inflammatory conditions in periparturient dairy cows. In Aspirin and health research progress, pp. 23–37. Hauppauge, NY, USA, Nova Science Publishers.

Trevisi, E., Amadori, M., Archetti, I., Lacetera, N. & Bertoni, G. 2011a. Inflammatory response and acute phase proteins in the transition period of high-yielding dairy cows. In F. Veas, ed. Acute Phase Proteins as Early Non-specific Biomarkers of Human and Veterinary Diseases, pp. 355–380. InTech, Rijeka (Croatia).

Trevisi, E., Grossi, P., Piccioli Cappelli, F., Cogrossi, S. & Bertoni, G. 2011b. Attenuation of inflammatory response phenomena in periparturient dairy cows by the administration of an ?3 rumen protected supplement containing vitamin E. Ital. J. Anim. Sci. 10(4): 277–286.

van Eerdenburg, F.J.C.M. 2008. Introduction. In “Oestrus detection in dairy cattle. How to beat a bull”. Veterinary Quarterly 30(Suppl. 1): 3–9.

Ward, W.R. & Parker, C.S. 1999. Field evidence of metabolic stress in dairy cows? In J.D. Oldham, G. Sim, A.F. Groen, B.L. Nielsen, J.E. Pryce & T.L.J. Lawrence, eds. Metabolic Stress in Dairy Cows, pp. 21–26. Occasional Publication No. 4, BSAS Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

May 2013


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