Once cows freshen, providing access to fresh, well-balanced rations is perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep cows healthy, happy and accelerating toward peak milk.
The critical thing is to have fresh feed available when cows want to eat, says Rick Grant, with the William H. Miner Institute in Chazy, N.Y. He helps manage the Institute’s 350-cow herd, which has a current rolling herd average of 31,000 lb. per cow.
He notes cows naturally evolved to be crepuscular (they prefer to eat at dusk and dawn), alleomimetic (they prefer to eat together as a herd) and yet competitive for the best feed.
That suggests dairy managers need to provide fresh feed twice a day and have adequate bunk space so they can all eat at the same time. Overcrowding creates a hyper-competitive environment where dominant cows will displace more timid animals and, in some cases, not allow them to eat.
Recent research backs that up. It shows feeding fresh TMR twice a day will result in less sorting and increased dry matter intake (DMI). In one study, DMI went up 3 lb. per cow per day and milk increased 4.4 lb. per cow per day when fresh TMR was fed twice per day.
But feeding more frequently than twice per day might be counter-productive, Grant says. “In particular, feeding four times per day can be antagonistic between resting and feeding at night,” he says.
Competition among cows is most prevalent one to two hours after fresh feed is delivered, and studies show the most cow displacements occur then. Pushing up feed every half hour after feed is delivered for the first two hours will reduce some of this competition.
Studies show that this frequent push-up will improve milk production and feed efficiency (though not dry matter intake).
Bunk space is also critical. Research shows cow displacements increase as bunk space per cow
decreases; 30" of bunk space is recommended. Close-up and fresh cows should have five feeding spaces for every four cows (80% stocking density).
Lactating cows can be crowded a bit more. “But don’t exceed 115% to 120% of stalls in a four-row barn. If you have a mix of first-calf heifers and older cows, one stall per feeding space might be best,” Grant says.
And if you have just 24" of bunk space per cow, stocking density should be 100% or less. In six-row barns, try to maintain one cow per stall since the feed bunk will be overcrowded even at this stall stocking density.
The next thing is to provide clean, comfortable stalls where cows can rest and ruminate after each bout at the bunk. “Management that impairs resting and ruminating will reduce feed activity,” Grant says.
“Rumination and dry matter intake are correlated positively. Cows prefer to ruminate while lying down.”