Recording: How to optimize transition phase with Choline nutrition?

Published on 5-03-2024 - By Kemin Animal Nutrition and Health

Successfully navigating the transition phase and early lactation of dairy cows is challenging. Issues such as nutritional imbalances, metabolic disorders, and stress during the transition phase can affect milk production and overall herd health. At Kemin, our years of expertise have shown that effective management of this phase is crucial for your herd's well-being and your business's success. 

In this podcast episode, industry experts Dr. Fabio Lima, Pieter Passchyn, Deepak Dubey and Robert Hamilton talk about nutritional imbalances and metabolic disorders of dairy cows, and how to turn these challenges into opportunities with the help of Choline nutrition.

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This podcast is part of the webinar about the latest research and application of Choline nutrition. Would you rather watch the full recording of the webinar, or a specific part of one of the speakers? Click on  the links below to watch the recordings:

Read the podcast discussion*

Based on your different backgrounds with regards to ruminant nutrition, would you mind sharing a unique perspective or maybe an experience that highlights the importance of Choline in dairy cow diets? 

Fabio Lima: Choline has been widely researched in dairy cows for over four decades now. The message that we kept saying, and I have to state, very dear to my heart, Choline was the first study that I conducted as a research assistant work after I finished my veterinary training. I wasn't even doing my PhD yet and I had the opportunity to conduct that work. I started work with that. Consistently, what we have learned about Choline, it's very important for supporting lipid metabolism and to benefit the liver function, early lactation. And they have repercussions for many different aspects of their cows' health, immunity, and productivity. And we hope we can discuss some more of this effect as we go. But some people do not call it essential nutrient. I would say it is more than essential. It's extremely important, and it should be part of anyone's diet in the protected form. Hopefully we can cover that. Whether or not we discuss it, it makes a big difference to simply have have it available, but there you go.

Pieter Passchyn: Well, actually, a couple of years ago we did some field trials together with Kemin, and in both field trials we had some nice results. And in both of them we showed an effect of an extra two kilograms of milk yield per cow per day on those cows. Also, another field trial, we showed higher conception rates, which was interesting, of course, also for the farmer to have a good cost benefit on that farm. And since then, actually, I've been using supplementing Choline on several herds, and I must say that in the field, the results are actually similar as we saw in the trials.

Robert, do you have the feeling that customers generally understand Choline nutrition, when best to implement, the benefits?

Robert Hamilton: I think, basically, certainly speaking from a UK and Ireland perspective, they have a basic understanding, similar to I have a basic understanding. If I go back to when I used to milk cows, managed cows back in the Jurassic period, yeah, well, I used to feed Choline if there was a fatty liver issue, if the cows are over-conditioned, but mainly in the dry cow period. But I understand, from these people here today, that things have progressed on somewhat from those times. 

Deepak Dubey: Well, what I would like to emphasize here is that during the transition phase, a big problem is that lots of unutilized fat builds up in the cows. In past, scientists found that the liver starts taking in much more fat around calving. This goes from 100 gram per day to 1,300 gram per day. Choline is important here because it helps the liver to deal with all this extra fat by making something called very-low-density lipoprotein. Choline is a functional nutrient that makes sure the cow's liver handles fat very well during the transition phase. It keeps the cow's energy balanced, helps the liver stay healthy, and makes it easier for the cow to handle the stress of calving, and helps in attaining higher peak milk production during early part of the lactation.

So, it's clear that liver health is important for the cow, for cow production and longevity. What are your views on that?

Fabio: I absolutely agree with that. I think that when we look at the tapestry of the research, it's very consistent. Most of the studies, over time, let's say, there is that transition period in starting, like Deepak said, where the demands on the liver, it's increased, but the benefits go beyond that. What you see, it's almost like you're setting the cow right for lactation with that part. Even when you are going away from the transition period and you're, say, putting cows under strict conditions and test them, you see that you, by maintaining the liver function adequately, by helping with the synthesis of their very-low-density, you can improve that liver, taking out that excessive accumulation in the liver and delivering it to other tissues that spark off energy. And that reduces stress, it reduces alpha-globin, and provides substrate for milk, and improves several other aspects that we have been studying lately.
I just want to take advantage of one comment made about the idea that was before initially thought about. Is it only beneficial for cows that are over-conditioned? And the data also showed clearly that that's not the case anymore. There was some interesting data where they had the body from this course, part of their model when they were studying that, and these cows, they are skinny, they benefit just as much as cows that were over-conditioned. For just the overall, I'd say adaptation to lactation. I think that's one way to put it. That adaptation to lactation, it relies a lot on this benefit that Choline brings to the cows.

Pieter: Yeah, in practice, actually I like to have cows in a so-called high-fertility cycle. And for me, a high-fertility cycle, it's aiming for a short calving interval, to also give you the highest income over feed cost. But to get there, you want to have cows that are getting a calf with no disease, or less diseases after calving, that will have a high conception rates and at 50 days, at 60 days. So, during that time, for me, Choline supplementation, actually, together with balance strike or ration and stress management, for me it serves more as an insurance of keeping cows into the high-fertility cycle because it's not always possible. Some cows are, for some reason, leaving the cycle, getting too fat later in lactation, and then have to deal with the high fat mobilization after calving. So, Choline supplementation, for me, and practices here is an extra tool to keep those cows in the high-fertility cycle.

Fabio, maybe you can share some insights from your recent research and application on Choline supplementation in dairy cow diets and its performance effects?

Fabio: Sure. So, we finished this study, got published last year, we finished a year before we were feeding Choline during the transition period, 21 days before, adding up to 21 days after. And we were able to see that, in terms of productivity, you were able to improve milk production, milk corrected by fat, energy corrective, which is the crux for production efficiency. And those effects were long-lasting. So, we were following those cows up to 150 days.
Some people always are like, "How? You only fed for 21. Why do you see that effect long-term?" Well, there's quite a few aspects. One of them is what I mentioned, you are potentially improving the adaptation of the cow for lactation. You're reducing the magnitude of stress that she is going through in that early lactation.
But there's also, for example, Choline, it supports the domain enzyme that's called phosphatidylcholine, which is pivotal for the synthesis of memory of liver cells in early lactation. That is another mechanism by which potentially you can explain that perhaps that initial mammary gland development to support lactation, it's improved, and that explains that long-term effect that you'd see in this calf. Up to 150 days, you see those improvements. And that's not only what we see in our data. I wanted to say, that's very consistent. It's great that we were able to see that. And we saw other benefits, other aspects beyond the productive side. But the productive side was over two kilos, 150 days, which easily supports its usefulness.

Deepak: Well, Fabio, I have a question on bioavailability. So, how does the bioavailability of different forms of Choline affects its efficacy in clinical study?

Fabio: So, bioavailability, just for those that might be listening to the podcast and might not be familiar with the terminology, this is just, like, we're talking about a product that is protected so the microbes in the rumen don't necessarily use it all. It is present in several regular ingredients that we feed cows, but the issue is not that they don't necessarily have a need for that, but the microbes use too much, and then they observe it's not enough. So, when we're talking about bioavailability, it is, if you protect Choline, it's nano part encapsulation. And if you protect too much, a lot of that goes straight to the feces, you don't use it. And if you protect too little, the microbes will take it. So, that bioavailability, how much you protected that, it gets in the small intestine to be absorbed and be used directly for the cow.
It's certainly important. If you look at the studies and you look at bioavailability and association with milk production, there is a linear relationship with that. And other benefits, like when you look at the benefits in health, the consistency was linked more to the bioavailability. Obviously it's not a main factorial thing, but what you can say for sure, a product more bioavailable, it's more likely it's going to do all the benefits that we've seen with Choline.

Robert: Pieter, from a practical point of view, how can farmers best incorporate Choline into the dairy cow's diets, and are there any consideration for pre- and post-calving cows? I have, for example, seen customers, and I believe you've seen this as well from your trials, utilize Choline in compounds, but surely, mineral premixes and top dressing can be also used. Do you have any preference or any insights in this?

Pieter: Well, it will mainly depend on the farm, for sure, but what I do in practice most of the time is at least feed Choline in the closeup group, and if I don't have a closeup group, because okay, sometimes you have smaller farms that only have one dry cow ration, then I feed it throughout the whole dry period. Most of the time it's as a pelleted feed or in a premix. You can do it by top dressing. I think it's more labor-intensive, and it's also open to human mistakes. So, actually, I would prefer more using it as a premix or a pellet. And after calving, then, here in our region we have a lot of robotic farms and a lot of farms that are using concentrate feeders, then it's more easy, of course, to have it in a pellet. And then you can maybe play around a little bit, also, with the days you give it. So, most of the times I feed it until top of lactation. But yeah, sometimes you could play around with it and maybe give it a little bit longer and look at the effect on the farm.

There are some misconceptions regarding Choline supplementation, and I get asked this question all the time by my customers. And the question is, choline really necessary when I'm feeding the methionine? What is your view on this?

Fabio: That's a great question. And the answer is, there was a very robust meta analysis that came out a few years ago where they put the methionine and choline interaction. If you feed methionine, do you lose the benefit? And the truth is, the benefits are there even when you are feeding proper amounts of methionine. You still see close to two kilos. But when you are under-delivering methionine, then the benefit are actually even greater. You can select up to four kilos. So, it's a misconception that... Let's put it this way, if you're not supplementing methionine or the diet is not properly balanced, it's more likely the Choline will have a greater benefit, but even when you do a great job supplementing using protected methionine to make sure that your cows are having proper diets used, you will see benefits in your production from Choline.

Obviously there are also two topics that are highly important and will prove to become even more important in the future, and these are cost-efficiency and sustainability. Deepak, how do you think that Kemin can help in these two aspects?

Deepak: Yeah, sure. Let me start with return on investment. So, the return over investment in Choline nutrition will come from a combination of reduced health disorders, reduced culling, increased milk production, early in lactation. That leads to a legacy effect on lactation and better reproductive performance. I have built a CholiGEM calculator that integrates different benefits and the cost of investment in Choline nutrition. Based on different performance outcomes, I can say that the return of investment on CholiGEM varies from four to nine times, which is a substantial return.

On the other hand, as far as the sustainability is concerned, increasing the concentration of Choline in encapsulation technology is the need after all. It can help in lowering carbon and water footprints, from manufacturing and transportation of the product.  We have lifecycle assessment done for CholiGEM manufacturing, and also, compared with our first generation choline solution, that is CholiPEARL. Based on the LC numbers on carbon and water footprints, I can say that CholiGEM reduces carbon and water footprints of manufacturing by 60%, as compared to our first generation product, CholiPEARL, which contains 25% Choline chloride.

Robert: Being in a sales position selling CholiPEARL, it used to be a number of truckloads, but because CholiGEM is nearly two and a half times more concentrated, that two and a half truckloads turns into now one truckload. So, on the sustainability front, it's really great.

Fabio and Peter, do you see any emerging trends or innovations in Choline nutrition research for dairy dows?

Fabio: So, from my end, some of the interesting finds of that study that we did and finished in 2021-2022, it was that I am interested on that intersection of nutrition, health, and productivity, so that three ways. And one of the aspects we're looking is that, to be able to see improvements in health, sometimes I need to track markers of health. And one of the emerging trends is to understand, for example, how the microbiome use. And I was particularly interested in the uterine microbiome. Some of my studies have been focused on uterine health. For example, the major uterine disease, they affect up to 25% of the dairy cows, that's called metritis. Even though it has a very complex pathogen that we don't understand, what we know is that Fusobacterium is one of the major pathogens associated with development. And interestingly, that was, when we were trying to characterize the microbiome, it was one of the major microbes that was reduced when we fed Choline.

So, there were differences in the microbiomes in general, and some of the highlights is that we are currently doing a much larger study to try to characterize its impact on health and in reproduction on a larger scale. So, there is, like Pieter pointed out, some studies already pointing out that there has been reproduction. And some of the things that I am interested in seeing is if we could then prolong, and if that can have this impact even on this by producing dairy cows that we have here on the west part of the United States. So, we're doing some studies, in partnership with commercial data farms, to try to learn if we can, independent of this farm using a lot of time AI synchronization or they use AI to detect estros, I want to see, when we look at all contingencies, supplement Choline up to the first service, can we see benefits? That's some of the things that we believe we can expand its use and benefits. So, we're looking to that right now.

Pieter: Yeah. I think, for me, looking at emerging trends, it's not any an easy one, but what I was wondering, if maybe in the future, and probably with the AMS systems like here in Europe and also in US, more and more AMS farms, we have more data, we have more ways of monitoring subclinical diseases, we have more insights, what are the challenges cows are dealing with throughout lactation, throughout the transition phase?  I think in the future we'll more go to precision feeding. And I'm also wondering, now we're actually formulating rations on milk yield, which is the main focus we have. And maybe in the future, or maybe we could question if it's not necessary to also feed cows based on their metabolic status, and maybe we have to feed them also based on their fertility status. If so, if we can combine it through on a farm with AMS because we have access to pellet feed and special dosators that we can play a little round with those cows based on the other statuses and not only focus on milk yield, which of course, is also the most important, but on the long-term we have to look also on health and longevity of our cows.

So, looking forward, how do you see the role of Choline in dairy cow nutrition evolving, more specifically in the context of improving animal welfare and farm profitability? 

Fabio: Well, animal welfare, it is a terminology, when we think about animal welfare, for improving health, if we're improving wellbeing in different aspects that can be supported. So, choline is being shown to improve ptosis, hyperferritinemia. Hyperferritinemia which is a metabolic disease that's highly prevalent and has a detrimental impact for other disorders. It has shown some positive effects in retain of domain brain. And we think with this larger study we might be able to see, for example, I think perhaps with permporometride and others.

So, by reducing those health disorders, what is the consequence? You're reducing culling, you are increasing longevity. And I think there is other benefits. They were just scratching the surface. There's some data that showed as well that Choline might help alleviate heat stress. So, that also can contribute to animal welfare by just the same concept of improving how the body adapts to the heat load. That's another aspect. I'm curious to explore some other benefits that we're seeing in humans. Not even just in humans, in other mammals as well. For example, there has been clear data showing that the Choline in other species help with the integrity of the intestine.

In my study it's pretty clear that it's a building block where the cell membrane of the pineal cells. So, it has all that to be investigated, and then maybe we can claim they're actually preventing these metabolic disturbances by maintaining the integrity of the GI tract, that we're also pursuing that line of research. There's other benefits of feeding Choline during the maternal period, like, the end of lactation, to the fetus and to colostrum. So, there is a lot of other benefits that we're learning that exist. And that is not just what we're seeing in dairy cows, but here we particularly interested in dairy cows, and that's where I'm doing my research, but I see a lot of those benefits.

All those things are aligned to reduce our carbon footprint. If you produce more milk per unit of feeding the cows, less resources are being used. And if you are having less cows, that is also improving the overall sustainability of the sector. I think Choline aligns very well to that. So, I've been always very into trying to learn more and more how it works and how we can use it to help our dairy community. And I think there is a lot we already know, the support that's used, and I think there is an opportunity for us to continue to expand its benefits.

What advice would you give to the dairy nutritionists and farmers for considering or maybe already implementing Choline supplementation strategies? What is your tip? 

Robert: Well, I'm speaking again from UK and Irish perspective. At the moment there's a big interest and push in amino acids here, but I would say to all these nutritionists and farmers, don't disregard Choline nutrition. From my stance, I believe that Choline is another essential element to a dairy cow's diet, and it actually brings a mass of benefits to the party. So, please, please do not disregard Choline nutrition.

Pieter: I would advise farmers and nutritionists to have a protocol on farm to monitor liver health and to monitor, actually, the amount of fat that will be mobilized. If it's not through blood samples, I would suggest doing body condition scoring throughout lactation, throughout the dry period, and then you will see, in practice, that a lot of cows will have a lot of problems dealing with fat mobilization. So, also, I think on every farm there's a Choline supplementation, there's room for giving it.

Deepak: Well, it's a fact that during the transition phase, cow accumulates fat in the liver. It is critical to filter this fat using Choline, and keep the liver healthy for overall health productivity and reproduction. So, I believe that giving Choline to the cows is not an option, it is something we must do.

Fabio: I concur with my peers here. I think we all had seen a little bit of a resistance to use Choline for different reasons. I think, as we continue to communicate with our colleagues day-to-day, advising farmers ourselves, we can help them understand that the benefits are there, independent if they are balanced or not, independent if you are not having too many cows that are over-conditioned, independent of that. So, we'd just help them see those different aspects that are perhaps not as well disseminated. We'll help them understand that we're helping our dairy producers, our dairy farmers when we're adding Choline to the portfolio of products they feed to their cows.

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