Holsteins eat TMR on a farm near Friona, Texas.
Holsteins eat TMR on a farm near Friona, Texas.

A positive dining experience allows the cow to satisfy her behavioral needs for eating, resting, and rumination. And a satisfied cow will be productive, efficient, and healthy. The best feeding environments feature a well-formulated and palatable ration, feed availability when the cow wants to eat, sufficient bunk space to ensure that competition doesn’t limit access to feed, feed barrier design that encourages natural feeding behavior, good water availability, no restrictions on resting activity (which will reduce feeding time), and good flooring, air quality and ventilation. The list goes on, but it is clear that feed availability should never be limiting – the diner needs to be open 24/7.

How important is feed availability? Well, we know that a cow’s motivation to eat increases markedly after only 3 hours of feed restriction. Nebraska research found that a functionally empty bunk from midnight to 6:00 am reduced milk by nearly 8 lb/cow and also reduced lying and feeding time. Canadian research showed that restricting access to feed by 10 hours/day reduced dry matter intake 3.5 lb/cow and caused twice as many displacements at feeding. A study with 47 dairy herds with similar genetics that were fed the fed the same diet found that milk yield among dairy farms ranged between 45 and 74 lb/day. This range reflected the management level of the farms – and ensuring feed availability explained a large amount of the variation in milk production among the farms. Herds that fed for refusals averaged almost 4 lb/day more milk and those herds that practiced routine feed push-ups averaged over 8 lb/day more milk.

We also know that overcrowding the feed bunk drastically alters normal feeding behavior, causing cows to eat fewer meals at a faster rate and potentially compromise healthy rumen function. We also know that, given a choice, subordinate cows will overwhelmingly choose to eat a lower palatability feed alone rather than compete with a dominant cow for more palatable feed when bunk space is 18 inches/cow or less. But even with 30 inches/cow, about 40% of subordinate cows still choose to avoid the dominant cow even when it means eating a less desirable feed. Going forward, this is a major challenge for proper feeding management and design of our feeding environments. How will we accommodate the dining needs of individual cows in a group setting?

Another common feeding management problem is non-uniform feed delivery or feed quality along the length of the bunk. When the feed is inconsistent, cows will “graze” up and down the bunk, resulting in greater competitive interactions as they jockey for feed access. A recent study from British Columbia found 51% more switches in feeding location and 3.5 times more competition under these conditions – certainly not conducive to focused, efficient feeding.

Cows naturally have an aggressive feeding drive and will exert sufficient force against the feed barrier to injure themselves while reaching for feed. If we consistently make cows reach for feed, we are likely frustrating their natural drive to eat and unwittingly training them to become less aggressive eaters! Feed needs to be pushed up as cows gradually push feed away from themselves during the meal. We know that the first one to two hours after feed delivery is the most competitive time for a cow, so maybe we need to focus on this crucial time period when pushing up feed. In fact, an Arizona study found that when feed was pushed up each half-hour for the first two hours after feeding, versus only once per hour, cows produced 4 lb/d more milk and were 10% more efficient.

So, the perfect dining experience boils down to ensuring that the cows can eat when they want, competition is minimal, and they can comfortably lie down afterward. When this happens, the cow will be productive and healthy and the diner will be profitable!