Gold Cup Comment: Dairy cow rations—what do the cows actually eat?

This month John Taylor, herd manager at 2014 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winners Worthy Farm in Somerset, explains how a drop in herd milk yields was investigated and addressed.

Cows have been milking really well on the winter ration.  However, we seem to hit a period recently when they went slightly off the boil.

Routine vaccination for BVD and IBR seemed to upset them for a few days and what were pretty near perfect dungs across the herd suddenly seemed to change and we had an odd cow a little loose in both the highs and lows.

This is inevitable when you think these cows are on a metabolic knife edge.  But after a day or two and the milk didn’t seem to come back where it had been, I thought I best look into it a bit more. 

I asked Alison Boydell, my ForFarmers nutritionist (still getting used to the new company name!) to come and have a look around and see what she thought was going on.  On walking round and looking at everything, we realised the diet looked different in the feed bunkers to the diet we thought they were having.

The big problem in feeding cows is which diet are they actually getting, the one that the nutritionist puts together though their rationing programme, the paper diet, the one that is mixed in the feeder wagon and then the one the cows eat.  Our ration on paper looked different to what the cows were eating—it looked wetter and seemed to contain more grass silage.

Our latest ForFarmers Visiolac report (a service which evaluates the ration through the bulk milk sample) showed there had been a slight change since last month.  

Although all parameters were good, the energy efficiency had just dropped into moderate, and we at Worthy Farm don’t do moderate. What the Visiolac report was showing was that we were not producing enough propionate in relation to acetate and butyrate or putting it simply, we needed a little more maize silage to grass silage.  This backed up our own thoughts on the diet.

The forages were resampled.  We have now started to use the new ForFarmers silage analysis which works on dry NIR—this means more accurate dry matter intakes and also much more accurate analysis of the fibre fraction of the diet.

A big bone of contention has always been the dry matter predictions on silage analysis.  As the forage makes up 40% to 50% of the diet it makes a big difference if the dry matters are out by a few percent.

The ration on the computer print out is not necessarily what the cows are actually eating.

The ration on the computer print out is not necessarily what the cows are actually eating.

The silage results also indicated that the starch content of the maize had dropped a little as well, again matching the Visiolac results. The ration was adjusted slightly so we are now happy with our paper diet.

Accurate mixing of the diet and adding the correct amounts of feed is critical.  We have been staff down and have been slowing up feeding while we finish milking and this may have led to slightly over mixed rations.

Then the final thing is the cows’ ability to sort the ration, although that doesn’t seem to be a big issue here at Worthy.  With a look at these things and a slight re-ration the milk shot back up over 500 litres a day.  It is still rising and the cows seem much more content again.

With everything it is the attention to detail on every aspect of feeding and management that makes the difference.  But it is worth looking at what they are getting and how it is presented against what it’s supposed to be on a daily basis.

With May fast approaching and our Gold Cup open day soon upon us, I thought that we best start to think about what information we present—so we decided to have a breakfast meeting at our local hostelry.  It was a meeting of the great and good, Pam and I, Ian Cox my breeding adviser and Alison Boydell my nutritionist—the cow team.

We discussed many things over our bacon and eggs and particularly discussed the Dutch way of feeding cows against the Americans. We have all looked at what the Americans are doing and tried to adopt it on our farms.  But if you think about it, the Americans don’t feed fermented grass silage, which is a major component of our diets.  The Dutch are achieving the yields of the Americans but with considerably more fat and protein and more milk from forage.  This is an area that could be improved on many farms, especially with the economics of milk production at the moment.

Latest figures from USA verses Holland are that the cows do on average one lactation more (2.5 versus 3.4).  So we look forward to Alison taking us out to Holland in the coming months and seeing what we can learn to take back to Worthy Farm—and someone mentioned Amsterdam was worth seeing as well!

Reprinted from the March 2015 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website