Increase milk production by maximizing feed availability

A couple of years ago, Rick Grant from Miner Institute, New York was at our Form-A-Feed Dairy Conference.  One of his presentations was on maximizing dry matter intake. He talked about how the best feeding environments feature:

  • a well-formulated and palatable ration

  • feed availability when the cow wants to eat

  • sufficient bunk space to ensure that competition doesn’t limit access to feed

  • a feed barrier design that encourages natural feeding behavior

  • good water availability

  • no restrictions on resting activity, and

  • good flooring, air quality and ventilation.

 The cow’s motivation to eat increases markedly after only three hours of feed restriction. Nebraska research found that a functionally empty bunk from midnight to 6 a.m. reduced milk by nearly eight pounds per cow, and also reduced lying and feeding time. Canadian research showed that restricting access to feed by 10 hours per day reduced dry matter intake by 3.5 pounds per cow and caused twice as many displacements at feeding.

Grant talked about a study with 47 dairy herds in Europe with similar genetics that were all fed the same diet.  They found that milk yield among dairy farms ranged between 45 and 74 pounds per day. This range reflected the management level of the farms.  Ensuring feed availability explained a large amount of the variation in milk production among the farms. Herds that were fed for refusals averaged almost four pounds per day more milk, and those herds that practiced routine feed push-ups averaged over eight pounds per day more milk.

Grant explained how overcrowding the feed bunk drastically alters normal feeding behavior, causing cows to eat fewer meals at a faster rate and potentially compromising healthy rumen function. Subordinate cows will overwhelmingly choose to eat a lower palatability feed alone rather than compete with a dominant cow for more palatable feed when bunk space is 18 inches per cow or less. But even with 30 inches per cow, about 40 percent of subordinate cows still choose to avoid the dominant cow, even when it means eating a less desirable feed. Going forward, this is a major challenge for proper feeding management and design of our feeding environments.

Another common feeding management problem is non-uniform feed delivery or feed quality along the length of the bunk. When the feed is inconsistent, cows will graze up and down the bunk, resulting in greater competitive interactions as they jockey for feed access.

Cows naturally have an aggressive feeding drive and will exert sufficient force against the feed barrier to injure themselves while reaching for feed. If we consistently make cows reach for feed, we are likely frustrating their natural drive to eat and unwittingly training them to become less aggressive eaters! Feed needs to be pushed up as cows gradually push feed away from themselves during the meal.

We know that the first one to two hours after feed delivery is the most competitive time for a cow, so it is important to focus on this crucial time period when pushing up feed. In fact, an Arizona study found that when feed was pushed up each half-hour for the first two hours after feeding, versus only once per hour, cows produced four pounds per day more milk and were 10 percent more efficient.

Overall, we need to ensure that the cows can eat when they want, that competition is minimal and they can comfortably lie down afterward. When this happens, the cow will be productive and healthy, and the dairy will likely see improved milk production.

Brant_J_Groen_250x333.jpgBrant J. Groen
Director of Dairy Wellness - Form-A-Feed, Inc.

Brant retired in 2010 after 34 years as the Dairy Management Instructor at Ridgewater College, Willmar, MN.  When Brant retired from teaching the Dairy Management Program at Ridgewater it was the largest two year dairy program in the U.S.  Brant has continued on with his passion for the dairy industry by joining the Form-A-Feed team as the Director of Dairy Wellness.

Through Brant’s years of teaching, Brant was fortunate to develop a broad base of knowledge including specialties in nutrition, breeding and reproduction, raising dairy replacements, dairy facilities/milking equipment, herd health, herd management and improving milk quality.

His goal is to provide dairy producers with the latest and best management practices to help position their dairy for the future.