If I told you there’s a dietary additive available that university data supports an 11:1 return on investment for, would that get your attention? Choline, a pseudovitamin, has been researched in the dairy cow for two decades, and our confidence that it has a positive impact is only strengthening.

A co-factor in several essential bodily functions, the dietary requirement for choline is understood to hover around 13 grams of ion each day. A few of choline’s key essential functions include liver protection, inflammation reduction, cellular membrane production, and enhanced production performance.

“Choline is required for life,” explained Usman Arshad, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the featured article on this month’s “Dairy Science Digest”podcast. “If you break apart the mammal into tiny cells, you can see every cell in her body is built with phospholipid membranes, which is created with the assistance of choline.”

This requirement is especially observable in the liver, which is most vulnerable to damage during the challenges of the transition period (21 days prior to calving through the first 21 days in milk).

Investment of 42 days

Up to 35% to 40% of cows drop their feed intake prior to calving, continuing to trail behind requirements for several weeks following calving. This results in a negative energy balance, which requires body fat to be used as energy to support lactation.

Preparing the liver to export fat is essential for a successful transition. Choline holds a key role in the creation of the vehicle, very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), responsible for transporting these energy units away from the liver. These prevent “fatty liver” disease also known as hepatic lipidosis, described as the deposition of esterified fat in the liver.

A healthy liver results in a healthy cow. Hepatic tissue has several critical roles, including the filtration of toxins, energy metabolism, and synthesis of glucose. These improvements are observable through greater milk production.

Research summarized from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Florida, and Michigan State University all support that when rumen-protected choline is fed through the entire 42-day transition, you’re making an investment in:

  1. Improved colostrum production
  2. Improved milk production
  3. Improved hepatic health
  4. Improved inflammation status

The average total cost to feed choline at the recommended rate through the transition window is around $14.70. “In milk return alone, with a conservative 4-pound increase over 25 weeks at a milk price of $20 per hundredweight, a dairyman can expect a return after costs of $142 per cow,” calculated Arshad.

This is conservative. Some research suggests the boosted milk yield is up to 8 pounds per day over 40 weeks of lactation. The positive response lasts weeks after supplementation stops at 21 days in milk.

Perhaps most interestingly, this increase of milk does not cause more dry matter intake. “We think the cows are just more efficient at the cellular level,” explained Arshad.

Mode of action

The first question that runs through my head is, “Why does this work?” Arshad explained that the answer is multifaceted and still somewhat unknown. In the rodent model, choline plays a role in reducing intestinal inflammation. When a dairy cow goes off feed, we know its intestines become inflamed and generate a leaky gut scenario. Is this pathway being prevented with choline?

Or perhaps the mode of action is through improved cellular function. Are the epithelial cells in the mammary gland more productive in secreting milk? Is the cow more efficient at extracting nutrients from the ration? More research is needed to answer these questions.

What we do know is improved liver function is critically important for the cow’s success. This is seen through greater metabolism and health. When choline is fed, the acute phase immune function improves, saving energy for milk production. If left unchecked, immune cells fighting disease can consume up to 5 pounds of energy in the form of glucose per day, rerouting glucose away from milk production. When the cow sails through the transition period healthy and disease free, this energy is conserved and put in the tank.

A benefit difficult to quantify is the ease of daily management. A healthy transition cow is a blessing, simpler to manage and often more profitable.

Integrating choline into your transition

As with any transition feed-through tool, there are several details to ensure success. The research conducted was on the entire transition window, 21 days out from calving through 21 days in milk. Honoring a full 42 days can be challenging due to pen availability. The response to fewer days on the product has not been investigated. Additionally, adequate bunk space ensures equal intake through the whole herd. Aim for at least 30 inches in the dry pen and 24 inches in the fresh pen; the more, the merrier.

Uniformly feed choline across all body condition scores. While it was once thought that choline is only helpful for obese cows, data from the University of Florida confirmed that it is equally helpful for thin cows.

The choline ion is protected from rumen degradation by being encapsulated in fat. Rumen-protected choline is absorbed through the intestinal wall. This requires a higher feeding rate to ensure 13 grams of choline reaches the intestine for absorption. Work with your nutritionist to ensure adequate concentrations.

At less than 1 cent per gram or 35 cents per day, the 42-day feeding window costs producers approximately $14.70. Take another look at choline to see if it will fit in your transition diet. Research suggests it’ll be worth your consideration.

These findings were summarized in a peer-reviewed open access Journal of Dairy Science article. To learn more, listen in to the monthly podcast, “Dairy Science Digest,” on your favorite podcast platform.

To comment, email your remarks to intel@hoards.com.
(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
May 13, 2024
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