Two Management Practices that Impact Dry Matter Intake in Dairy Cows

Written for Form-A-Feed by: Krastyo Malinov, Sci-Tech Premixes 

I thought about beginning this article with a statement like: “in today’s markets…” or “with the recent economic situation in the dairy industry…”, but I am not going to. The management practices that I would like to discuss have proven to be a great investment in any economic and market situation in the dairy industry. The last two years have been very difficult to make profits or even stay afloat milking cows. Owners and managers of any dairy have been asking themselves the same questions:

  • How can we improve feed efficiency?
  • How could we increase components and milk production?
  • How could we decrease feed cost?
  • How could we minimize heat stress, at least in transition cows, if not all cows?  
  • They all lead to one question: How can we be more profitable?

There are some practices on a farm level that are absolutely not new or unknown to our industry, but tend not to be monitored, are forgotten for many reasons, or are purposely overlooked to improve labor efficiency. These indispensable practices are PUSHING UP FEED and knowing the EXACT DRY MATTER INTAKE of the cows. It seems that these two practices are more often overlooked by our industry while we are all too busy looking at profits, shaker boxes, feed efficiency, labor efficiency and all other numbers. By no means are these unimportant but after all, if there is no feed available in front of a ruminant at all times, none of the other numbers matter.

Pushing Up Feed

I am certain that every person involved in dairy farming for more than two years knows and understands that pushing up feed (having feed in front of the cows at all times) is vital to any dairy’s success.   Let’s be practical and think about pushing up feed on any size dairy. Is this one of the everyday activities that gets left for later or is it being skipped first when things get busy on the farm? My answer as a former dairy manager and as a field nutritionist would be “YES”. Nevertheless, this is not necessarily a negative call but it often becomes a profit-eating factor when we make it a habit. We noticed that nothing “bad” happened that one particular time we skipped pushing up feed over and over until we unintentionally have moved from pushing up feed every 3 hours to every 6 hours.

What is the right number of times that feed needs to be pushed up in a 24-hour period?

Most of us would answer this question with every 2 to 2.5 hours. This translates into 12 to 9.6 times a day. Is this really practically achievable? In some cases, yes it may be, yet in the vast majority of the Midwest dairies a more realistic goal is 6-8 times a day. This means pushing up feed every 3-4 hours. Regardless of how we say this it cannot be done by one person all the time in any dairy. Therefore, it involves creating a hard set schedule and keeping it up to date with changes of milking times and feeding times. Include feed push-up in SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) in job descriptions and communicate it effectively.

Unless at least one of the above is in place for a dairy, feed is not being pushed up consistently and often enough. This leads to lower DMI and consequently low production, or increased size of meals and therefore, lower components. In my mind the magical number of times that feed needs to be pushed up varies depending on the number of milkings and number of feed deliveries in a day, as long as there is always feed in front of the animals and the push-ups are done evenly throughout a 24-hour period all the time. Six to eight times a day ends up being a practically achievable goal, including single family operations. I have witnessed several examples (in dairies ranging from 80 to 800 cows) where the effort put in to creating and following a solid, applicable to the operation, schedule of pushing up feed has not only paid back but it has significantly increased profit levels.  It is vital to make sure that the feed push-up schedule is always maintained.  

Dry Matter Intake

An additional basic practice that often is also overlooked is knowing the actual dry matter intake (DMI) of all cows. Dry matter intake changes seasonally, with the stage of lactation and with the age of the animals. There are many other factors that influence the dry matter intake such as fiber content of the ration, butyric acid in forages, daily changes in THI (temperature-humidity index), grouping practices, etc. Unless DMI is monitored on a daily or weekly basis, there is no way of knowing what the actual DMI is. Dry matter intake is the single, most important quantity that effects milk production, feed efficiency and subsequently, farm profitability. Let’s not forget the good old statement that holds true virtually all the time: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!”.

Since DMI is part of all these important equations such us: feed efficiency, milk production, farm profitability, etc., we cannot predict and manage all these numbers unless we know the DMI. To calculate the DMI, you need to log the total amount fed and the weight of what was left over before the next feed delivery, and calculate on dry matter basis. It may seem like too much extra work, but most dairies have all the tools necessary and it is absolutely worth the extra effort. Once established, the DMI can easily be manipulated and optimized. Optimized DMI means optimum profitability.

So far in this section, it seems like I have not said anything new, and yet seemingly a large number of dairy farms do not take the time to measure DMI on a regular basis. Does that mean that we refuse to manage our bottom line? I do not believe there are farm owners and farm managers that refuse to manage the bottom line. What I do believe is that we tend to drift away from basics for many reasons. These drifts often end up being expensive when we lose handle on the essentials and chase profitability in other ways. There is nothing wrong with looking for alternative ways to improve as long as we don’t forget the fundamentals.

The important message that I would like to deliver is that it is always important to double check the basics and make sure that we actually do what we think we are doing. In today’s dairy industry it doesn’t get more basic than feed push up frequency throughout a 24-hour period; and knowing how much our cows actually eat, and how and when the DMI changes.