More questions to ask your cows

Your cows are never wrong! So spend more time “interrogating” them. Ask about what you can do to improve feed efficiency — changes that won’t mean huge costs and diet changes.

Many questions don’t have to do with diet, per se, but can affect cows’ maintenance requirements, how well they eat, and their health. Let’s begin with ruminating.

Key Points

Five questions will help you learn much of what cows need.

Are they ruminating at least 10 hours a day? What are they sorting for?

Manure will give you a lot of “tell-tail” answers.


Q: Out of every 10 cows, how many are ruminating?

The rule of thumb I teach (preach, really) is that six out of 10 cows should be chewing their cuds, except those eating, sleeping or drinking. Cows ruminate for 10 hours a day.

If they aren’t ruminating, look further into the cause. Could it be sorting? Is the diet low in physically effective fiber?

Q: Do they appear to be sorting their feed? What are they sorting for? Are they eagerly eating buffer or salt?

Cows are professional sorters. If it can be sorted, they’ll do it! If they’re sorting, the manure will be variable within a group — some very stiff, some diarrhea.

Cattle often start consuming more salt or buffer when they have some form of digestive upset.

Ruminal acidosis, digestive upset and decreased feed efficiency are the likely consequences of sorting.

Q: Is average body condition score acceptable for the cow group?

Body condition can be a good monitoring tool of how well the current diet and feeding system are meeting her requirements.

Varying body condition within a group raises questions about the management of moving cows in the herd, or whether all animals are getting enough of the diet, unsorted.

Consider the number of cows per group. Under-stock high-needs groups such as fresh cows. Also consider grouping first-lactation cows separately from mature cows, so competition for feed and stalls is more even.

How does her ‘doo’ stack up?

This is the back leg of your interrogation.

If the rumen’s working right, there’s enough forage/fiber in the diet and feed management is good, then manure will be slightly stacked, with two or three dimples on top.

Manure fiber particles will be small. No undigested feed should be identifiable.

Q: Is barn manure foamy, with many trapped air bubbles, or very loose?

Bubbly, loose manure suggests the rumen isn’t working well, as in ruminal acidosis, and that more feed is being fermented in the large intestine.

Gas from the hind-gut bacteria is trapped in manure and makes it appear foamy and bubbly.

Acid produced by that bacteria can cause diarrhea, as can moldy or spoiled feed.

Q: Is there much variation in a group’s manure consistency?

If consistency varies, then cows are sorting. Poorly processed whole grains and corn silage will show up in the manure.

Ground grain in the manure indicates that grain is escaping the rumen too fast.

But remember, a high-producing cow may have a bit more ground grain in her manure because of higher intake and higher rate of passage through the rumen.

In that case, “a bit” may not be a problem. But grain in the manure represents feed that never got digested — and never got a chance to support milk production.

Check the grind on grains, and the processor on the corn chopper at harvest.

Adding a source of physically effective fiber [1 to 2 pounds of dry matter from dry hay or wheat straw] can help retain particles in the rumen for fermentation.

That’ll reduce undigested feed in the manure.

Once again, before making significant diet changes, communicate with your cows.

Generally, they’re very candid, and always give you their best answers.

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

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MORE COW TALK: They give you many signals about what they want and need.

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

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.