Aiming to achieve peak feed intake

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Before calving kicked off this spring I wrote about the management of the dry cow and how preparing cows for their lactation will deliver a more profitable result from a healthy animal. Dry Matter Intakes need to be driven to deliver sufficient energy for their requirements based on their stage of gestation and preparation for the subsequent lactation.

Aiming to achieve peak feed intake at eight to ten weeks post-calving starts with proper care during the dry period and continues with sound nutrition after the cow has calved. This peak intake in a spring calver will have to be achieved with predominantly grazed grass and I believe that all dairy producers understand that driving intakes will drive performance but none the less achieving this can be easier said than done.

Implementing a feeding and management strategy which will help boost intakes immediately post-calving should be a high priority. The days immediately post-calving are critical. Where possible a maternity area, where fresh cows and heifers move into for a few days after calving will allow you to monitor health and intakes. During this time, feeding a high-quality forage-based diet will encourage feed intake in finicky fresh cows.

Maintaining fresh-cow dry matter intake is key to keeping your fresh cows healthy and productive during their entire lactation. Once a cow has calved down, cleaned and got up and running in the milking parlour, then attention turns firstly to getting the yields that she is genetically capable of. This milk should be produced with optimum milk quality at least cost and then you need her to go about getting her back in calf again.

Feeding to improve intakes

Getting the balance right, between energy, fibre and protein is very important for freshly calved cows. After calving, a cow’s energy needs increase with the onset of milk production. Meanwhile, the stress of calving causes her to reduce feed intake — thereby reducing the amount of energy she consumes — and that plunges her system into an inevitable negative-energy balance.

To reduce the level of the negative energy deficit, aim for a high energy density diet per kg of dry matter during the first two to three weeks post-calving. While cows remain indoors, it is important that you have established the best quality silage in the yard for them. Some may have Maize silage, whole crop or beet in the diet and these ingredients are ideal in early lactation to boost total dry matter intake and optimise energy intakes. 

Protein is another important component of a fresh cow’s diet. As has been well reported, the availability of protein this spring is an issue. Soya is in very short supply and any being traded has gone way up in price. Don’t lower protein to save money as this will have a negative effect on cow performance. What is the appropriate level of crude protein to include in the immediate post-calving diet?

Keeping the protein level low initially so as to not cause cows to milk too hard early in lactation and compromise on body condition is one strategy. Care needs to be taken with this approach as Protein is critical to encourage fresh-cow intakes and pitching diets too low will depress intakes. Grass silages made in 2020 like many recent years are low in protein with many in the 10-12% range and as a result a concentrate to balance this forage will need to be over 20% to balance it correctly before cows are turned out to grass. Pay attention to the ingredients included in any concentrate you feed to early lactation cows. It should include top quality cereals, digestible fibres and quality protein sources.

Include a top-quality mineral and vitamin pack which will aid recovery post-calving, boost the immune system and help subsequent fertility performance.

Feed high-quality forages Silage quality in early lactation is a major driver of intake and performance. You can help your cows consume more nutrients by feeding only the highest-quality silage in the yard to your fresh cows. Top quality silages contain a higher energy content than low-quality ones. High-quality grass ensiled and preserved well will make silage that cows like to eat more of. Good quality forage fed indoors is the ideal preparation for grazed grass.

Feeding management.

A big influences on fresh-cow intake is your feeding management. How often and how regular is your feeding. Is it ad-lib silage plus parlour feeding or is it a diet feeder system? Pit management is very important as the better you look after the pit face, the fresher the feed you offer to your cows each day.

Fresh cows and heifers are the most vulnerable and the least competitive animals in the herd. They will tend avoid situations which force them to compete for their feed in the first few days after being introduced to the milkers group and that contributes to a reduction in feed intake. This applies to feed, water and also to accessing cubicles. Clean water is so important when encouraging feed intake. Cows that drink clean water, drink more water and as a result they will eat more food.

As we should all know, cows are at their most productive when they are lying down and chewing the cud. With this in mind, a critical part of your feeding management must include a clean dry cubicle for every cow with a few spare spaces ideally. A cow must chew the cud for approximately 30 minutes for every kg of Dry Matter consumed, so every minute counts.

Space at the feed barrier is critical as is the design and construction of the feed barrier. What type of barriers suit your system? If you diet feed, then you need less barrier space than if you are top dressing with some concentrates.

A few hours at grass The recent weather has been a challenge and has delayed the early turn out of dairy cows by day. When conditions do allow grazing, aim to introduce cows gradually to their new feed ingredient. Offer grass for a few hours in the middle of the day for a few days before considering grazing between am and pm milking. It takes a ruminant 21 days to get used to a new diet so getting the transition to grazing right will have a positive effect on body condition, milk yield, milk solids and subsequent fertility performance. It is important to look at cow performance in tandem with your grazing plan as if you push too hard to achieve grazing targets the cow may suffer.

How do you improve feed intakes on your farm?

 Keep fresh feed available at least 22-23 hours per day.

 Regular feeding and push-ups will encourage cows to visit the feed barrier more often.

 Deliver feed at the same time each day ideally.

 Push up as many times as possible each day.

 Clean feed troughs and passages regularly.

 Don’t put fresh feed on top of old or stale feed as it spoils the new feed and depresses intake as cows spend too much time sorting and selecting.

 Keep fresh, clean water available at all times.

 Clean out troughs daily- a lot of tip over troughs have been installed for this reason.

 Monitor feed refusals. Fresh cows should refuse about 5 percent of their feed each day.

 Take away stale feed after 24 hours and provide fresh feed to encourage intakes.

 If you feed too much today, then take note of volumes and reduce tomorrow to reduce waste. Count the grabs or take note of how much you are offering through the diet feeder if using one.

Monitoring and adjusting dry matter intake in the first two to three weeks after cows calve will stand to them for their entire lactation. Cows that have a smooth transition into lactation and peak yield have less metabolic disorders, remain healthy, produce better quality milk and ultimately are easier to get back in calf.

Those factors all drive profitability!

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