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Rumination data can help ration formulation

Shane St. Cyr Published on 28 June 2013

Feeding dairy cows has always called for feedstuff flexibility, but that’s especially been the case in recent years.

Variable feed quality, feed availability challenges and roller-coaster feed prices have driven dairy producers and their nutritionists to explore alternative ration ingredients while trying to protect cow performance and maintain profitability.

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At the same time, cows must adapt to these nutrition changes and producers need to stay on top of whether cows do this successfully. Rumination monitoring is a good way to track how individual cows, as well as a herd, respond to ration changes.

Rumination matters
Rumination is an important management consideration because this activity facilitates digestion, reduces feed particle size and helps maintain high levels of feed intake.

Furthermore, rumination increases saliva secretion and improves rumen functionality because saliva aids in buffering the volatile fatty acids produced by microbial digestion.

And it’s one of the key performance indicators producers, veterinarians and nutritionists have long relied on to gain insight into cow health. If all is well, cows ruminate about 450 to 500 minutes, or about eight hours, each day.

When all is not well and cows face challenges, a drop in rumination time often precedes any drop in milk production, and often occurs before physical symptoms of health disorders appear.

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“It’s one more tool to help keep track of what actually happens in the cows,” says Kurt Breunig, dairy production consultant with Land O’Lakes. “Rumination data helps shorten the lag time between a nutritional problem cropping up and when you see issues with cow health or performance.”

Rumination also follows a relatively predictable pattern, making it a good parameter to watch.

According to published research that evaluated cows from dry-off through 150 days in milk, rumination tends to decrease in the last two weeks before calving, drops suddenly at calving and then rapidly increases postpartum.

About a week after calving cows usually reach normal daily rumination time, which should stay relatively stable for the remainder of the lactation.

Monitoring in action
Changes in the ration – from opening up a new feed storage unit to changing a feed ingredient – can have an immediate impact on rumen health and performance, and rumination monitoring can identify how cows respond.

Dairies are turning to electronic rumination monitoring systems that enable them to track rumination for large numbers of cows rather than visually observing just a few animals at a time.

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These systems also provide a numerical value for each day’s rumen function and compare it to the individual animal’s average.

This comparative rumination data can help with early identification of potential issues before they become more serious problems.

Breunig learned this first-hand last fall when observing rumination data from a client’s herd that had been equipped with an electronic rumination monitoring system.

“During a routine visit, the producer and I could see from the charts that the cows had dropped in rumination time, but we hadn’t had a weather event and there was no reason for the drop to have happened,” he explains.

“I walked the pens and noticed there was an issue with the haylage quality because of last summer’s challenging growing conditions and it was affecting intakes. The information helped us get on top of the situation quickly and resolve it before the cows showed any health problems.”

Targeted management
Furthermore, Breunig adds, the data enables him and his client to better micromanage individual cow groups.

“It makes it easier to fine-tune rations to meet cow needs,” he says, adding that the rumination information had aided in managing sorting issues as well as assessing the impact of recent rains on ration dry matter content. “We can pick that up in looking at rumination time,” Breunig notes.

“The rumination charts also help you see if a feeder has done something differently that you might otherwise not know about,” he says.

In addition, the data help Breunig target what he’s looking for during pen walkthroughs. For instance, he noticed lower rumination times in the two-year-old pen, so he walked the pen to physically observe cud chewing and to verify animal health.

Breunig reiterates that rumination data – where available – has quickly and easily become part of his ration and herd assessment routine.

“It’s something I want to look at,” he says. “Rumination data is one more tool to help us do a better job of managing cows and rations.” PD

St. Cyr is a field support manager with SCR Dairy.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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Shane St. Cyr
Field Support Manager
SCR Dairy

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