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Leveraging the economics of your robotic feed tables

Amelie Mainville for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 June 2021
Cattle at the feedbunk

When discussing robotic milking systems, what does it mean to leverage the economics of the feed table? First, let’s define these terms as they relate to robotic milking and feeding.

  • Feed table: A chart defining the amount of feed distributed daily to the cows based on days in milk (DIM) and/or production level

  • Economics: The relation between the feed table setting based on feed amount/cost versus income from milk production at varied DIM

Essentially, “leveraging the economics of the feed table for robotic milking” means investing in feed allowance at the onset of lactation and peak milk according to your herd’s lactation curves. This saves on feed costs during the mid- and end-lactation phases while capitalizing on your herd’s peak milk production.

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Let the lactation curve guide you

One of the biggest pitfalls I see with feed tables is: They can limit how a cow takes off, peaks, persists and ends her lactation. We know higher peak milk correlates to more milk over the entire lactation, which is why an evaluation of the lactation curve should influence your feed table changes to leverage higher milk production and capitalize on each cow’s potential.

When looking at a dairy’s lactation curves, I first identify how high cows are peaking and when. This is where you can tell if feed tables are limiting a cow’s production or aiding her full potential. For example, I will see robotic herds peaking early at 25 to 30 DIM because that is what the feed table limits. These cows essentially are being held back because they don’t receive the nutrients needed to reach the expected peak milk at 50 to 90 DIM, depending on their number of lactations.

Robotic feeding allows for more control over the exact nutrients each cow receives. Using the lactation curve and, if need be, different grouping for lactation numbers, you can manage pellet allowance and lead animals to a higher and longer peak.

Typically for free-flow and feed-first barn setups, the first few DIM are flat pellet settings for all cows. Between 10 to 21 DIM is when I put animals on a “chase the pellet” production feed table – meaning that their feed allotment will be correlated to their potential production increase, hence an overestimated feed requirement at current production. What I have seen from this in comparison to a slower transitioning is higher milk production along with fewer transition problems. A fresh animal needs the energy in the pellet to offset her already negative energy balance. This is more economical than a high flat feeding rate for all fresh to peaking cows and limits feed table changes that could be compromising during the peak milk period.

We adjust feed tables further after the cow reaches peak milk and her lactation curve starts to level and gradually fall. Major savings can occur in this persistency phase of the lactation – if tables are set to minimize fetching but also encouraging the cows to get most nutrients from the partially mixed ration (PMR). In addition, this is where dairy farmers can identify their top producers that are giving high volumes of milk up to 200 to 250 DIM and allow feed tables to maintain these cows’ production. These cows won’t hit their potential if pellet is limited after 100 DIM and is a clear example as to why allowing the lactation curve to guide your feed table can optimize milk production.

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Validate feed tables with your consultant and ration formulation system

  • Know exactly what is in your PMR
  • Record correct dry matter (DM) on all ingredients
  • Feed to accurate cow numbers per group
  • Calculate actual dry matter intake (DMI)

With both customer and prospect dairies, when I evaluate the feed tables I build the actual PMR in my MAX system for dairy, a formulation program. Understanding what is in each bite of PMR a cow will consume on-farm is key. This allows me to mimic intake of both PMR and robot feed for all ranges of cows that are not close to the average.

Using the MAX formulating software, I then calculate projected energy and amino acid milk production for each scenario. Doing this, I can ensure that high-producing cows can be as economical as possible on the feed table without limiting their potential. Additionally, I can ensure that low-producing cows can be as economical as possible on the feed table without creating fetch cows.

Ask your nutrition consultant to evaluate different cow scenarios and the associated predicted milk because that is where the savings reside.

Check additional robotic parameters

  • Refusals per cow per day
  • Rest feed
  • Feed consumed

When a cow goes to the milking robot but is not allowed to get milked or receive feed, it is called a refusal. The ideal range expected is between one to one-and-a-half refusals per cow per day. Refusals matter because there is a direct correlation between refusals, PMR availability and energy levels. For example, if refusals are high, this may be an indication cows are seeking additional DMI or energy. After evaluation of visit/milkings, free time and access parameters, you may choose to alter feed tables to maximize visits and production or ration cost savings, whichever is the greater opportunity.

One scenario could be to challenge the PMR with higher nutrients and create a more efficient feed table to save costs. This will also allow the cows to rest longer instead of walking up to the robot, resulting in more milk production. If refusals are low, there may be opportunity to tweak those feed tables to maximize visits and production – free time permitting.

In addition, view your rest feed and feed consumed percent. Rest feed is the percent of feed that cows did not consume during the day compared to what they were allotted. Rest feed should be between 2% and 8%. A similar parameter would be feed consumed, which is best to fall between 92% and 98%.

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If rest feed or feed consumed is above their maximum or minimum thresholds, respectively, I would recommend revisiting the feed table, as there is economical gain available. You can dive deeper into the data to find which stage of lactation or lactation group may be responsible for the average being above expectation. This will help you target where the feed table economics can be achieved. If rest feed or feed consumed is below their minimum or maximum percent suggested, respectively, then you may be limiting the cow’s potential in production.

Leveraging the economics of your robotic feed tables can be achieved through proper nutrition that aligns to your herd’s lactation curves. Having a clear picture of your herd’s production as well as managing what nutrients you’re feeding will lend itself to cost savings opportunities and improved efficiency.  end mark

Photo by Mike Dixon.

Amelie Mainville
  • Amelie Mainville

  • Nutritionist
  • Cargill
  • Email Amelie Mainville

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