Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

1608 PD: Feed intakes drive milk production

John Hibma Published on 06 November 2008

More than any one thing, the amount of milk a dairy cow produces ultimately depends upon the amount of feed she consumes every day. The more feed you can get a cow to eat, in a properly balanced diet of course, the more nutrients there are available for her body to absorb and metabolize – and make milk.

Reach your herd’s potential
Many of you now have herds of cows that have the genetic potential to reach individual lactations of 30,000 pounds or more of milk per year. Those cows, in order to sustain peaks of over 100 pounds of milk for several months, can consume over 60 pounds of dry matter per day. The key to reaching and maintaining this level of milk production requires a nutritionally sound, well-balanced feed ration that a cow has access to most any hour of the day.



We know that the most difficult area of nutrition to balance for the high-producing dairy cow is energy. The challenge continues to be: how does one get a cow to consume over 50 megacalories (Mcals) per day without compromising microbial efficiencies and rumen health?

For a healthy, high-producing dairy cow it becomes increasingly more important to understand both her energy and protein needs and which forages, grains, byproducts and supplements will provide that necessary nutrition. A mature Holstein cow in early lactation weighing 1,400 pounds and producing 130 pounds of milk per day will consume 4.5 to 5 percent of her bodyweight in feed (about 60 pounds of dry matter) per day. A properly formulated feed ration should:

1. maximize feed intake

2. optimize the nutrient density of the ration

Maximize feed intakes
By maximizing feed intake, I mean the ration should not have overly high neutral detergent fiber (NDF) levels, which will restrict both the cow’s feed consumption and digestibility. At the same time the ration must still contain enough effective fiber to maintain proper rumen health and non-fiber carbohydrates (NFC) to supply additional energy and protein. The ration needs to be mixed adequately to prevent sorting and avoid slug-feeding of concentrates. It needs to be kept fresh to keep cows coming back to the feedbunk.


Optimize nutrient density
By optimizing the nutrient density of the ration, I mean we need to squeeze as many calories, amino acids, vitamins and minerals into a pound of feed as possible. Careful consideration needs to be given to the types of feedstuffs chosen for cow rations.

As we become more knowledgeable about protein and fat nutrition in the rumen and lower digestive tract and our ability to estimate forage digestibility continues to advance, we need to take special care in formulating rations that provide the correct mix of nutrients to the cow as efficiently as possible. Selection of a feedstuff must no longer be made on just price, total digestible nutrients (TDN) and crude protein. We must now consider the types of fat and carbohydrates, fiber digestibility and the amino acid profiles in proteins before we can make a decision to include them in a ration.

Stages of ration feeding
A high-producing lactation starts in the dry period. We now know that cows that receive a properly formulated and well-managed close-up ration can produce from 1,000 to 2,000 more pounds of milk during the course of the following lactation. This is largely a result of increased feed intake and a well-functioning rumen at the time of calving. Cows have difficulty maintaining feed intake in the days just prior to calving and immediately following. Keeping all nutrient levels up for two to three weeks prior to freshening will decrease the possibilities of metabolic disorders such as milk fevers, twisted stomachs and ketosis in the days following calving.

In early lactation, the more a cow eats the more milk she will produce if the nutrition is there to support the production. Many early lactation rations lack the nutrient density to support even 100 pounds of milk. Once a cow is fresh the energy density of the ration needs to be kept as high as possible. The feed intake of a fresh cow always lags behind milk production and this usually results in a negative energy balance for several weeks during early lactation. Feeding management should include a fresh-cow group where energy densities of the feed ration should approach one Mcal per pound of feed. This concentration of energy helps get the cow back to a positive energy balance more quickly.

However, this level of caloric intake is often difficult to attain without compromising the effective fiber of the ration. Consider using a rumen inert fat and work closely with your nutritional consultant when formulating a fresh-cow ration. The nutritional strategy we need to pursue is to make sure we have properly matched protein and carbohydrate sources for optimum rumen microbial growth and high-quality, highly digestible forages to keep rumen papillae healthy along with appropriate vitamin and mineral levels.

The price is right
Many dairy farmers mistakenly believe that attaining and maintaining herd milk production averages in the mid to upper 20,000 range is not cost- effective. I disagree. Dairymen should not be afraid to push their herds as hard as possible even in times when feed prices are high. Especially with little control over milk prices, every gallon of milk that can be produced over cost will generate a profit. With a proactive approach to your feeding strategies, a cow will have a higher lactation peak and sustain that peak for a more profitable lactation, which will add dollars to the bottom line of your dairy business. PD


John Hibma