Empty bunk syndrome

Editor's note: The following case study was handled by Todd Stroup, dairy nutritionist from Hilmar, Calif. He is affiliated with Pine Creek Nutrition Services Inc.

A herd that Pine Creek Nutrition Services Inc. recently took on was having issues with depressed butterfat. The 2,000-cow herd had let its previous nutritionists go and hired Pine Creek Nutrition Service to solve the problem.

The nutritionist working with the new client struggled because the rations looked good on paper, but the cows were not responding. Todd Stroup was one of the nutritionists in their group called in to help troubleshoot.

Stroup and his partner did their normal walk-throughs during the day, but weren't seeing anything that could be causing the problem. He decided that maybe they needed to check the feed bunks at night for sorting. (He wasn't able to analyze the sorting during the day because the dairy had already cleaned the bunks when they arrived in the mornings for their normal visits.)

One night, Stroup went to the dairy at 10 p.m. to evaluate sorting. What he found was that some of the bunks were empty and the herd wasn't scheduled to be fed again until 4 a.m. Knowing this should not be the normal observation, he returned to the dairy the following night to confirm his findings. Yes, running out of feed was definitely a problem.

The two most critical pens — the fresh cows and the high (milk production) group — both had empty bunks.

The dairy was feeding all of its feed between 4 a.m. and noon. It was almost like they were feeding once a day, since both feedings took place within an eight-hour time period, notes Stroup. This herd also milks three times per day.

After Stroup discovered the bunks were empty, he and his partners met with the dairy owner. The owner was upset that this was happening and knew that something dramatic had to happen. Instead of just feeding more feed, the dairy owner decided to feed three times per day in conjunction with the milking schedule, which is ideal, says Stroup. In addition, the owner watched the bunks closer, and if they were out of feed it wasn't for very long.

As a result, butterfat went from 3.1 to over 3.5 percent in a matter of two or three weeks. Body condition score in the fresh cows improved, and it led to better reproduction overall. Milk production also increased.

Empty Bunk Syndrome (EBS), as Ed Vieira, another nutritionist with Pine Creek Nutrition Services Inc., fondly calls this phenomenon, is more common than they had ever imagined. Since finding the first case of EBS, they have found it in many herds that they wouldn't believe it was happening in. Evaluating the bunks at night is now part of the regular check-up when a herd is having problems.