Questions to ask your dairy cows

When your next feed bill arrives, you’re not going to want to open it. And when you do, it’s tempting to log on to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and look for the lowest-priced feed ingredients.

Key Points

Your cows may offer the best remediesto skyrocketing feed costs.

Can you make life — eating, resting and ruminating — easier?

Do you serve fine feed, or just whatever you have the most of?


Then you’ll be tempted to call the salesperson and demand that as much as possible of the high-priced ration ingredients be replaced with the cheaper alternative.

But before you punch in that phone number, ask your cows for advice. They’re never wrong.

What to ask them

You make your living according to how well you “listen” to your cows. Paying a little closer attention to what they’re saying may be a more profitable move.

The first set of questions you should ask is about your cows’ environment. Do they have comfortable, non-skid flooring? Are there rocks or holes in the laneways? Is there deep mud?

Is ventilation in the barn good? Are they using stalls comfortably? If cows can’t breathe, rest or walk comfortably, they’re likely to make fewer trips to the feed bunk and eat less. Reduced intake equates to reduced milk yield.

If you can’t easily traverse the path from the parlor to the pen or pasture, then your cows will expend more energy doing the same. That energy used for moving from one location to another adds to her maintenance requirement — and subtracts from energy available for milk yield.

Does she have a clean, comfortable place to get off her feet, rest and ruminate? If cows aren’t using the stalls, or lying half in and half out, or just standing in the stalls, look at stall design, dimensions and bedding. Keeping stalls clean, dry and well-bedded entices them to rest.

Next, ask them about the feed bunk. Is there feed in the bunk? Is it well-mixed? Does the feed in the bunk match the formulation? Has the feed been heated, or is it frozen?

Is it musty or moldy? Is it palatable? Are there clumps of spoiled silage in the bunk?

Is there enough space for everyone to eat? Is there fresh feed in the bunk when the cows come back from milking? Is that feed pushed up several times a day?

No feed means lower intake and lower milk. Feed leftovers should look and smell like the feed originally delivered.

Evaluating and managing the cow’s environment can lead to more consistent intake, increased milk yield and better feed efficiency without drastic or costly changes.

Carson and husband Steve partner in Harkdale Farms of Newbury, Vt. She’s also a professor at Vermont Technical College.

Try these TMR tips for happier cows

Total mixed rations should be well-mixed; otherwise, what’s the point?

If particles are too fine, cows won’t get enough effective fiber to keep the rumen operating properly. Too coarse, and they’ll sort the feed.

So watch your cows eat. If they nudge feed back and forth, then dive toward the floor, they’re pushing forage out of the way and eating grain.

Although, I’m not a fan of adding water to TMRs, adding wet feeds such as wet brewer’s grains can help hold it together. Making sure most forage is cut 1 to 2 inches long at the most will help prevent sorting.

Also check mixer weights, and feed dry matter against the formulation.

If a feed is unpalatable, cows will eat less of it. Clumps of spoiled forage that make it to the bunk is likely caused by not cleaning spoilage from the top of the silo. Spoilage can also cause some cows to scour. Moldy forages can also be a source of mycotoxins. If your attitude is “They get what they get,” then you, too, will get what you get in milk production.

Limited feed-bunk space may cause cows to slug feed — eat large meals in short intervals. Slug feeding could lead to bouts of ruminal acidosis and lower feed efficiency. If your cows are happy, you’re more likely to be happy.


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COW TALK: Paying attention to your dairy herd’s behavior at the bunk and in the stalls could help you save money on feed.

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.