I recently arrived at a dairy farm just as the feeder was preparing to deliver freshly served total mixed rations (TMR) to the milk cows. The bunk had previously been scraped clean, so there were no picked over leftovers to examine, and no evidence of what the previous feeding’s refusals may have been, if any. As I watched the feed cart pull up alongside the manger area—the cows being held back by a curb and a steel rail—it was a mob scene as they stampeded to get to the feed.

This herd was a mixture of mostly Holsteins and a few Jerseys. I stood there amazed as I watched the larger, dominant Holsteins lunge and push their way to the front of the line, where the feeder was beginning to unload the TMR. Many of them could only grab a mouthful of feed before being jostled aside by a bigger cow. After a couple of minutes, when everything had finally settled down, I couldn’t believe my eyes—all the cows were lined up almost totally according to size and height, as if they had rehearsed it. The biggest, tallest, bossiest Holsteins were at one end and the smallest Jerseys were at the other.

I couldn’t recall ever seeing this much free-for-all, aggressive cow behavior at a feed bunk. Either this was one really yummy TMR that got these cows as excited as kids getting free candy, or they had been without feed and had not eaten for quite a while.

A few days later, I received the monthly newsletter from the W.H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, New York. The lead article, written by Institute President Dr. Rick Grant, was entitled, “Creating the Perfect Dining Experience.” Dr. Grant made several key points in the piece such as:

  • A cow’s motivation to eat increases markedly after only three hours of feed restriction.
  • Cows naturally have an aggressive feeding drive and will exert sufficient force against the feed barrier to injure themselves while reaching for feed.
  • Subordinate (and smaller) cows will overwhelmingly choose to eat a lower palatability feed alone rather than compete
    with dominant cows.
  • Research has found that a functionally empty bunk—for several hours—reduced milk by nearly 8 pounds per cow per day, and also reduced lying and feeding time.
  • Other research showed that restricting access to feed by 10 hours per day reduced dry matter intake 3.5 pounds per cow and caused twice as many displacements (shuffling and jostling) during feeding.

In other words, when cows are deprived of feed for more than a few hours, it’s difficult for them to compensate by eating more, and they ultimately don’t get enough to eat in order to support a desired level of milk production. Aggressive behavior by larger, dominant cows will prevent many cows from getting enough to eat, and some are liable to get hurt. Hungry cows that are standing around waiting to be fed are deprived of time to rest and ruminate, which is all-important for maximizing milk production.

Nothing on a dairy farm is more important and has a greater impact on milk production than the feeding program. A wellmanaged feeding program means a properly formulated and palatable ration. It means “the buffet is always open,” and cows are given unrestricted opportunity to eat whenever they want to. It means there’s always sufficient bunk space for all cows to eat when they want. It means overcrowding must be minimized so that all cows get their fair share.

Photo by dageldog/iStockphoto.com 

Consistency is the name of the game for dairy cow nutrition. The healthiest and most productive dairy cows have rumens that are filled most of the day. Empty rumens have wide swings in pH levels, which affect the activity and efficacy of the rumen microbes. Feed fermentation is not optimal when the microbial population fluctuates. In addition, in group feeding situations where there’s the possibility of poor TMR mixing, subordinate cows will not be getting a proper ration. Most of the time this just means that they will not produce to their genetic potential. Other times cows may get a displaced abomasum and the vet and the nutritionist will get called out to investigate what’s “wrong” with the diet.

Top milk production comes from a diet that is nutrient-dense. By optimizing the nutrient density of the ration we squeeze as many calories, protein, vitamins and minerals into a pound of feed as possible. A fresh cow requires a ration that has a very high nutrient density. Feed intake of the fresh cow always lags behind milk production. A group of fresh cows that is left to stand around with no feed for several hours per day will never attain their highest potential for milk production.

Careful consideration needs to be given to the types of feedstuffs chosen for a fresh cow’s ration. As we become more knowledgeable about protein and fat nutrition in the rumen as well as the lower digestive tract and our ability to estimate energy values of forages continues to improve, we need to take special care in formulating rations that provide just the right mix of nutrients to fresh cows as efficiently as possible. Forages fed to high producers must have high rates of fiber digestibility, and cows must have access to those feeds all day long.

When it’s time to eat, do your cows have time to eat?

On the dairy farm the cows are completely at the mercy of the dairy farmer and the dairy’s employees when it comes to making sure they are fed properly and consistently. It’s not always easy to “create the perfect dining experience” and get upwards of 100 pounds of feed to a cow in a timely manner so she’s got it all in front of her all day long. The dairy farmers who do, however, will reap the rewards.

Cover Photo by Wallentine/iStockphoto.com