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Best practices in utilizing direct-fed probiotics and feed every day of the year

Rod Lorenson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 09 March 2016

One of the greatest challenges facing a producer of dairy cattle is effective management of change in feed rations. Cows do not make change easy in their reactions to new feed throughout all seasons, as it takes the average cow 10 to 12 days to build up good bacteria naturally in the rumen to break down new feedstuffs.

The domino effect that inevitably occurs is additional problems and costs that arise from a cow’s compromised immune system. Adding probiotics to new feedstuffs can help the transition by giving cows the right bacteria and enzymes to break the feed down.



Cows are always physically preparing for the next season, so minimizing the effects of change is crucial. For instance, in the fall and winter seasons, it is important for cows to ingest the proper amount of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals in order to stave off metabolic disorders such as winter dysentery.

Additionally, when body temperature needs to be cooled in the spring and summer months, supplementing with enzymes can cool down body temperature by 2 degrees and have better results in breeding, along with higher fat and protein levels in the milk.

An ounce of prevention in minimizing metabolic disorders can mean financial gain for the producer. Each case of ketosis, for example, can cost a producer around $140. Each case of milk fever is more costly at around $340. By making sure good feed is digested in all seasons and bombarding a cow’s digestive system with good bacteria from probiotics, a producer saves money not only on antibiotics, but also in treating many preventable metabolic conditions.

In order to save on veterinary expenses and costs associated with losing effective bacteria, the process of choosing and keeping a probiotic in good condition is essential. The producer must consider the following in the process of choosing and utilizing a direct-fed microbial or probiotic:

  1. The probiotic contains bacteria and enzymes that work above 5.5 pH under aerobic and anaerobic bacteria conditions.

  2. Inulin (prebiotics) is included, sugars that feed beneficial bacteria and encourage their growth.

  3. Manure tests are conducted annually.

  4. The producer already has a process in place to protect the probiotic’s bacteria.

All probiotic forms need protection in order to keep their beneficial bacteria alive. Some examples of probiotic forms that serve this purpose include microencapsulated, freeze-dried or moisture-scavenging. Specific food needs to be provided in order to starve off pathogens as well. Sources such as inulin, derived from chicory extract, have been proven successful in doing so.


This feeds not only the regular bacteria, but also bacteria that have survived in varied environmental conditions. When food for beneficial bacteria is fed, the good bacteria will double every 20 minutes. The pathogenic load from harmful bacteria, like E. coli, is lessened though this process.

In transitioning feed, it is appropriate to have a ration of one-third new feed and two-thirds old feed over the course of a seven to 10 day period. In bunker silos, this is almost impossible; therefore, it is necessary to have good bacteria available to cows in order to minimize fluctuation in their health.

Utilizing quality feed that is already grown on-site can have better benefits financially when combined with a probiotic to make sure feed is consistent. It can prove difficult to judge quality when buying feedstuffs from outside sources. When homegrown feed is used, the producer knows the makeup of the feed and can also have better control of health, protein, mineral and energy costs. For example, when the producer can save 2 to 3 pounds of protein per animal by utilizing homegrown feedstuffs, they can ensure not only a healthier animal, but also a healthier bottom line in production in terms of food costs.

Cows themselves can provide insight into the quality of the feed they are consuming. Always monitor a cow’s cud chewing to tell whether or not the fiber in the feed is being utilized effectively. At least half of all cows should be chewing their cud at any time during the day. When a cow regurgitates the cud chews, it should be 55 to 60 cud chews for the maintenance of maximum microbial protein production within the rumen. This will keep the herd living longer, with one to two additional productive lactations and fewer metabolic disorders.

When there are 40 to 45 cud chews or less, this is an indication that the animal has a rumen pH of about 5.7 to 5.8 and has a lack of fiber. The animal is then on the verge of acidosis, providing a greater threat for laminitis. When a cow approaches low pH, the body reacts in order to protect the heart. It issues less cleansing blood flow to extremities, causing many expensive foot ailments, including hoof rot and hairy heel wart. On the opposite end, if the cow is utilizing 65 to 70 cud chews, there is too much fiber in the diet for effective production.

While change is inevitable, the damaging and expensive results from inconsistent feed can be reversed when effectively utilizing homegrown feed and probiotics. The cost of beneficial bacteria is far less than treating the variety of ailments that occur from stressful change and ineffective use of feed. When using probiotics, it is important to remember the conditions in which bacteria thrive and to monitor cows for any indications that the feed used has the wrong amount of fiber. With the combination of high-quality feed and probiotics, change in all four seasons will be much easier to control.  PD


Rod Lorenson is a national accounts manager for Vets Plus Inc.