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Feedbunk management: Ensuring enough feed for all cows

Contributed by Betsy Hicks and Joe Lawrence Published on 24 November 2021

Even when producers put up the right quality of feed for a class of cows, ensuring all cows have enough feed is a goal that has a few components to consider.

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Too much competition from other cows, not enough feed delivered and a lack of communication among the farm team can all be threats to each cow consuming her daily allotment. When the farm team works together to ensure cows have adequate feed, and their management allows for normal daily cow needs of rest, rumination, drinking, socialization and eating, productivity is bound to increase.

Feedbunk competition

From a cow’s perspective, competition from other cows can seriously alter her feeding strategy. Dominant cows spend more total time eating than cows of lower social rank. As competition increases, cows will on average eat for less time, eat more quickly and show greater aggression when feeding. When feed is limited, cows that are dominant get to eat and will eat 14% to 23% more than submissive cows. In turn, dry matter intake (DMI) of submissive cows then suffers.

Overcrowding can exacerbate differences in groups and also alter feed intake strategy. In overcrowded situations, research in 2000 showed that after exiting a parlor, cows prefer to lie down versus competing at the feedbunk. They will spend more time standing in an alley waiting to lie down than they will eat. Cows in this situation also ruminate 5% to 25% less than cows that aren’t overcrowded.

Grouping strategies can be a way to mitigate some of the risks of social competition and can play a huge role in feeding behavior that, in turn, impacts cow productivity, animal well-being, herd health and ultimately farm profitability. When grouped by parity, a 2001 Journal of Dairy Science article showed that first-lactation cows’ eating time increased 11.4%, meals per day increased 8.5%, and DMI increased 11.8%. First-lactation cows benefit from being grouped separately for a few reasons: This class of animals is still growing, they produce milk in a different lactation curve than mature cows, and they have different nutritional and social needs.

Excessive time away from the pen can also compromise a cow’s needs. A cow’s ideal schedule includes 12 to 14 hours resting, three to five hours eating, seven to 10 hours ruminating, 30 minutes drinking, two to three hours of social interaction and 2.5 to 3.5 hours outside of the pen. When cows are away from the pen for longer than this, time for normal activities is reduced. Miner Institute has a Cow Time Budget Evaluator (Miner Institute › pdfs › Time Budget Evaluator Miner Institute v3.0.xls, William Miner Institute) that identifies the impacts of reduced resting activity, based on time and stocking density inputs from a pen of cows.

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The evaluator gives results for both average cows and elite cows. In general, elite cows show a higher loss of production and bodyweight when time budgets are negatively affected. Competition, overcrowding and time away from pen all affect how much dry matter a cow will consume, and management of these areas can help to ensure cows have access to feed when they need it.

Feed availability

A second area of consideration is to ensure adequate feed is delivered to the pen. In general, dry matter changes, targeted refusals and feeding for extra cows or extra feed can all impact how much feed is available when a cow wants to eat. Dry matter adjustment strategy should be discussed together by management, the nutritionist and feeders. The frequency of adjusting dry matter by forage, how dry matter is adjusted during a weather event and feeding by volume versus weight in the event of a scale malfunction should all be planned out and agreed upon. In addition to dry matter adjustments, daily refusals should also be monitored. Historically, farms have aimed for 5% refusals, but some farms are successfully managing 2% to 3%.

Whatever the goal is, farms in general should avoid slick bunks and have feed available for at least 23 hours per day. Feed should be delivered at the same time every day, and feed wasted should be minimized. To successfully achieve this goal, farms should monitor cow behavior at the bunk, TMR consistency and feed availability/feed push-ups. Feeding for higher refusals can be a strategy so DMI is not restricted, and sometimes cows may eat more feed and gain intake. Conversely, if intakes are declining and/or refusal rates are high, a conversation should be had to determine the cause. The manager, nutritionist and feeder should all be on the same page about what adjustments should be made and when a diet reformulation should take place.

Communication

Last, communication with others is key. The feeder’s role is intertwined in so many factors that affect how they do their job, making it one of the most important roles on-farm. Along with the feeder, the owner/manager, herd manager, nutritionist and the cows themselves should all communicate regularly. The feeder has a look at the cows at hours when the rest of the farm staff may not – and as such, they often see many things. Observations of the herd can include odd cow behavior (e.g., licking salt blocks more, eating at a particular end of the bunk), sorting behavior and amount of feed refusals.

These observations can be communicated to the herd manager. The herd manager can communicate cow moves in or out of a pen, times when feed needs to be delivered (e.g., when cows come back from being milked) and times when it’s a hassle to have feed delivered (e.g., when cows have to move across the feed alley). The feeder can communicate to the herd manager if there were issues at the bunk or with the mix (e.g., frozen feed or moldy feed, or an improper mix). The owner and the feeder should communicate things such as grain and forage inventory and problems with either, problems with equipment and safety concerns, as well as ordering needs.

The feeder and the nutritionist should communicate desired length of chop of hay or straw for a mix, any mixing issues or grain flow issues, as well as odd cow behavior, eating behavior and refusal rates or empty bunks and time periods. How well all parties work together definitely affects how effectively the farm performs and its efficiency and profitability.  end mark

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Betsy Hicks is a dairy specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension SCNY Dairy and Field Crops Team. Email Betsy Hicks

Joe Lawrence is a dairy forage systems specialist with Cornell PRO-DAIRY. Email Joe lawrence.

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