by Kai Yuan, Ph.D. PAS – QLF Dairy Senior Scientist and Technical Advisor
QLF evaluated on-farm management practices on many dairy operations covering key areas including feed delivery time consistency, TMR loading and mixing, TMR delivery consistency, feed bunk distribution and push-up, feed availability, and feed sorting, etc. A published study by Bach et al. (2008 J Dairy Sci. 91:3259-3267) evaluated 47 farms that were fed the same ration and found that factors other than ration accounted for over 50% of the variation in milk yield, which ranged from 20.6 to 33.8 kg/d. In today’s dairy economy, dairy producers are looking for ways to improve cow performance without investing an excessive amount of costs. One area that can offer the biggest return is better feed bunk management.
No matter how great the ration, cows must have sufficient feed available throughout the day to maximize production potential.
Benefits of Frequent Feed Push-Up
Higher DMI – Frequent feed push-up stimulates cow’s eating behavior. Typically, every additional pound of DMI can translate into 2 additional pounds of milk. Intake is especially important in fresh cows to minimize fresh cow disorders and in high producing cows to maximize milk production. Feed push-up is especially important in the prefresh pen, as adequate intake of nutrients and energy is one of the most important factors to ensure a smooth transition.
Improve Milk Components – More meals per day are associated with greater milk components, especially milk fat yield. More frequent meals result in more consistent rumen pH and enhanced fermentation patters, which in turn help boost milk fat. On the other hand, if feed push-up is inadequate, cows can experience large gaps between meals, resulting in a rumen pH dip after consuming a big meal. This can lead to subacute ruminal acidosis and milk fat depression.
Prevent TMR Heating – Frequent feed push-up can reduce TMR heating and spoilage in summer months. Redistributing feed throughout the bunk can prevent heat buildup within TMR piles, which helps maintain TMR quality and promote intake.
Other Benefits – Delivering fresh feed or pushing up feed to ensure that cows have feed immediately after returning from milking parlor is important to extend standing time. A cow that stands longer allows more time for the teat sphincter muscle to close, reducing the risk of infection from exposure to environmental bacteria when cows lie down too soon after milking.
Feed Bunk Camera Observations
QLF monitored feed bunk management using time-lapse cameras, monitoring feed availability and counting push-up frequency. On the farms we completed evaluations, the frequency of feed push-up ranged from 4 to 12 times a day. Figure 1 showed example pictures of a very well managed large herd. The camera monitored the barn for an entire week in November 2019. Cows were short on feed at night and had aggressive feeding behavior right after the feeding next morning.
Figure 1: Camera pictures of a large herd. The camera monitored the feed bunks for a week in November 2019. Cows were short on feed at night and had aggressive feeding behavior right after the feeding next morning (7:30 am). Pictures by Rachel Kenneke
Some dairy producers or managers believe running out of feed for 3-4 hours a day is not a big deal, but let’s calculate how many hours a day are cows actually are out of feed? If the feed bunk is out of feed for 4 hours at night, and cows typically spend another 3 hours in holding pen and milking parlor, which can easily add up to 7 hours per day that cows do not have access to feed! Providing a little extra feed to make sure that cows do not run out of TMR for any length of time can have an economic benefit. In the study of Bach et al (2008 J Dairy Sci. 91:3259-3267), cows from 47 farms were fed the same lactation diet, but only ~60% of the farms fed to provide refusals. Cows that were fed to provide refusals tended (P = 0.09) to produce approximately 3 lbs more milk per day than cows fed for no refusals. At $16/cwt, 3 lbs of milk is worth $0.48/ cow/ day. Although feeding for refusals may slightly increase diet cost, the net result is still a positive economic return. Another misconception we often hear is that because there are weigh-backs after pushing out the bunk, cows were not short on feed. In fact, the amount of feed refusal is not a useful measure of cows’ accessibility to feed in a 24 hour period. It doesn’t reflect how many hours cows were out of feed nor issues like uneven bunk distribution. If the feed bunk is long, one may push out large amounts of feed refusals in the morning, but certain parts of the bunk could be out of feed for many hours at night. Also, adjusting feed delivery based on amounts of refusals remaining can provide feed needed to cows more precisely. If the refusals left are dramatically greater than target, the initial amount of feed delivered may need to be adjusted. An investigation is needed as to what caused the larger than expected amount of refusals. Dramatic changes in cow numbers, forage analyses, and mixing accuracy can quickly affect refusal quantities which alters nutrient delivery to the cow, microbial stability of feed in the bunk, and increased feed waste. When pushing up feed, make sure that blades, buckets, sweepers, etc. that will be pushing up TMR are dedicated for use for feed only. One should inspect and clean push-up equipment on a regular basis to keep the process as efficient as possible and prevent contamination with mud and manure.
Increasing feed push-up and making sure there is enough feed available to cows is a very low cost investment that could result in a large return in profitability. In the field, we typically recommend dairy producers to push up feeds every 2 hours for the most part of the day to ensure cows have access to feed all the time, which equals to about 10 to 12 times a day. This is especially important in overcrowded barns where cows are under a competitive feeding environment. Let’s calculate the profitability of pushing up feed.
Economics of Pushing Up Feed
• Increasing push-up from 5 to 10 times a day will likely to increase DMI by 2 lbs, which in turn increases milk yield by 4 lbs.
• 4 lbs milk at $16/cwt is about 64 cents return
• 2 lbs of dry matter feed costs about 18 cents
• Assuming increased feed push-up increases 2.5-hour labor costs (for a 1000-cow herd) plus equipment usage and fuel costs, a total of $60/d.
• For a 1000-cow herd, the net profit is $0.64 x 1000 – $0.18 x 1000 – $60 = $400 per day OR $146,000 per year
Please note this calculation doesn’t include improved milk fat, reduced somatic cell counts, and improved health status etc.
In short, feed bunk management practices such as making sure there is frequent feed push-up and enough feed available to cows can help generate a large return in profitability relative to the investment in time and labor. We identified bottlenecks for each farm and worked with producers to implement strategies to improve nutritional management. QLF continues to strive for helping dairy farms improve profitability.