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0208 PD: Get hands-on with feeding management

Elliot Block Published on 14 January 2008

With forage and commodity storage areas full, feed analysis complete and rations built, the foundation of your nutrition program for the next year is nearly set. Now it’s time to focus on your feeding program to make sure the ration outlined on paper makes it to the cow’s rumen.

Technology is available to make feeding management easier. Available software does a great job of making the necessary daily adjustments (cow numbers, group changes, dry matter [DM] levels, feedstuff changes, etc.) to provide accurate information to those mixing the feed and feeding the herd. Reports give an indication of how well your feeding personnel are performing, and ingredient tracking profiles help manage feed inventories.

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While software programs are a great management tool, they don’t provide all of the information necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of your feeding program. Managing your feeding system should be a daily operation, and it is essential to the health and profitability of your herd.

Dr. Robert Corbett is a veterinarian based in Utah who does nutrition consulting for dairies across the country and in Mexico. He recently shared with me an experience he had that highlights the need to take a hands-on approach to ensure your feeding program is working correctly.

Corbett was recently at a herd where a solution to metabolic problems in transition cows was not readily apparent. The herd owner said the feed software program showed the right ingredients were being fed at the right levels to the right groups on a consistent basis. Corbett took TMR samples from transition and fresh cow bunks, and compared wet chemistry analysis of each sample with the on-paper ration. The analysis showed that, while the software was not wrong, something was dramatically wrong with the feeding process.

Further investigation showed the wrong ingredients were getting delivered to the cows. The herd owner preferred to feed the cheapest ingredients possible, so he was constantly changing feed ingredients based on the best deals available. He had contracted with a trucking firm to deliver the right ingredients on a specific day each week. The problem was that they were going through the feed faster than it was being delivered.

The feeding personnel thought they were doing their job – they were taking the feeding sheet, making the concentrate ration (usually a batch would last a few days) and feeding the cows accordingly. However, when they ran out of a feed ingredient, they just substituted it with another unrelated ingredient. So although the feed amounts were accurate, the feed ingredients were not correct. As can be imagined, this threw off the nutrient profile and created significant metabolic disorders – Corbett says the dairy producer lost 150 cows in his 3,000-cow herd to metabolic disorders associated with the feeding problem.

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There are a few procedures and processes Corbett recommends to his clients to ensure the feed management system is functioning properly.

Continue to use computer feed management software to manage day-to-day feed inventory, feed weights, pen deliveries, etc.

Make sure contracts with feed suppliers are filled on time and on a consistent basis. Take regular inventory of your commodity bins to ensure the right feed ingredients are on hand at all times.

Purchase commodities and other feed ingredients from reputable sources. One of the drawbacks of living in a global society is the ready availability of cheap substitutes to feed ingredients that can be found in the U.S. These foreign products are not produced under the same strict regulatory guidelines as ingredients manufactured in the U.S., and often come from countries with endemic diseases that could threaten the biosecurity of our own feed supply. So the next time you purchase feed ingredients, make sure to ask for verification that it was made here in the U.S.

Complete a forage DM analysis regularly. Corbett says corn silage moisture levels can change as much as 10 points from the front of the bunker to the back, and even more if some of the forage receives a hard freeze before being harvested. If these changes go unnoticed, effective fiber and energy levels can be outside of acceptable ranges. For larger dairies, Corbett recommends daily analysis; smaller dairies should complete an analysis at least once each week.

Complete wet chemistry analysis on bunk TMR samples at least once every month. Compare the results to the on-paper ration. Results don’t need to match exactly, but they should at least be comparable.

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Check the mixer. Not all mixers mix feed the same way, so the best way to tell if your mixer is doing a good job is to take an analysis. Corbett does a TMR analysis on samples from the beginning, middle and end of the batch and compares it to the on-paper ration. Results should be consistent between samples. If not, make sure there are no mechanical problems with the mixer that could limit functionality and that the rations are mixed thoroughly before being fed. A forage particle separator can also be used on the same samples to determine the uniformity of the mix.

Clean out bunks on a daily basis and take time to look at what cows are eating. Cows will sort the ration to find the tastiest morsels, so what’s left in the bunk by default indicates what’s not going into the cow. If a lot of long fiber remains in the bunk, check to make sure mixing time is adequate. Corbett says oftentimes there is too much emphasis placed on overmixing, so the ration is not mixed correctly, which leads to sorting problems. He recommends feeders visually inspect each batch to make sure ingredients are mixed well enough prior to delivery.

Cleaning bunks daily also helps producers monitor to see if ration amounts need to be adjusted. Corbett recommends feeding to a 3 to 5 percent refusal level. While most producers visually judge refusal rates, some producers collect and weigh refusals to get a true picture of what the cows are eating and, more important economically, use the information to calculate feed efficiency on their farm.

Providing your cows the right nutrients to maximize productivity and profitability requires a happy marriage between nutrition management and feeding management. Equally critical is making sure the right nutrients are getting incorporated into the ration at recommended levels by making sure that feed closely resembling the ration on paper is reaching the cow’s rumen. Doing so requires outside-the-office, hands-on management to ensure the right feed ingredients are available at all times and that daily processes and procedures are being followed. PD

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