It’s not uncommon when discussing rations to talk in terms of percentages. While these terms work well when discussing the ingredients themselves, they don’t provide much information as to the amount of nutrition actually consumed by the cow. “Cows eat pounds, not percentages,” says Andy Fielding, senior dairy technical consultant with Purina Animal Nutrition.

While this isn’t a foreign concept to most, there are still many farms that don’t take steps to capture how much the animals are actually eating. Admittedly, it takes additional time to record how much feed is delivered to each string and then measure how much is left after the cows are done eating, but Fielding says it’s a number that can provide a wealth of data to the managers. And, now has never been a better time to record how much cows are eating.

Here’s a look at what you can determine with these insights:

  • Are health challenges on the horizon? Recording how much cows are actually eating can be an early indicator of health challenges. “If a string of cows is averaging 90 pounds of milk, but they are only averaging 40 pounds of feed this should be a red flag,” notes Fielding. “If cows are losing weight, they could be headed for problems.”
  • Are you getting the most out of your ration? Pounds of feed consumed can be corroborated with milk production and feed efficiency can be calculated on a weekly basis. “If rations aren’t efficient, adjustments can be made to increase efficiency and profitability,” notes Fielding.
  • Are ration adjustments working? When ration changes are made, milk production typically goes up or down. “Without knowing how much each string eats, it can’t be determined if any changes in milk production are from the ration adjustment itself or if the cows ate more,” says Fielding.
  • Do I have enough feed? If you know how much your cows are eating, you know how much feed you need. “If you know cows are eating 44 pounds of corn silage each day, inventories can easily be managed,” explains Fielding. This information can also be helpful in making planning decisions to stretch feed inventories, if need be.

To capture how much cows are actually eating, Fielding recommends that dairy producers note the starting weight of the TMR and then stop between each string or barn to record how much feed was delivered for each feeding. “Individual string weights are key because you find out what each pen is fed and in-turn eating,” says Fielding. Feed refusals or weigh backs should also be recorded by string or barn prior to the next feeding so that the amount leftover can be coordinated with the original amount fed. Every feeding should be recorded and calculations done weekly.

“This is a really nice guide to examine how early lactation cows and high cows are eating,” he says. “You can find out if the cows are eating what they should.”

Other tips to keep cows eating are to offer enough bunk space, keep an eye on forage quality and water intake, reduce pen moves and manage bunk faces.