Take a bite out of feed refusals

It's hard to change an old habit.

For years, dairy producers have stoically fed cows for a 5-percent — sometimes even higher — feed-refusal rate. It's a classic example of an old habit that dies hard. After all, that's the way it's always been.

Indeed, the concept of feeding cows for a 5-percent feed-refusal rate evolved as a way to solve the "empty bunk problem," says Jim Barmore, of Five Star Dairy Consulting in Verona, Wis. After all, you don't want the cows to get hungry between meals, or milk production could suffer.

However, the dark cloud hanging over milk prices — not to mention the high cost of feed — may stick around for awhile, which makes it more important than ever to cut your feed cost. One way to do that is to reduce the amount of feed left at the bunk from 5 percent down to 3 percent or less.

Today's feed bunks are managed better than ever before. Many of you are ready to take that next step. It's not for everyone, cautions Barmore. But for many of you, it's time to cut your refusal rate in half. Here's why.

Cows still get enough to eat
Maybe you've toyed around with the idea of lowering your rate of feed refusals before, but just haven't gotten up the nerve to try it. Or maybe you think there's too much risk involved. After all, the cows might run out of feed, and that would be bad for milk production.

The risk of an empty bunk hasn't stopped Cottonwood Dairy from successfully lowering its refusal rate. Jim Winn and cousins Randy and Brian Larson strive to keep feed refusals in the 2-percent to 3-percent range on the 700-cow operation in South Wayne, Wis. Even at the reduced refusal rate, they haven't had a problem keeping feed in front of the cows.

"If they run out, it's not for a very long time at all," Winn says.

Keith Moritz of Fort Atkinson, Wis., hasn't had a problem keeping feed in front of the cows either. "(My) goal is to have feed present for 23 hours," Moritz says. And the fact that he's been able to do so is particularly impressive, considering Moritz has taken his refusal rate all the way down to zero. Some days it's 0.001 percent, Moritz admits jokingly, but for the most part, he strives for a zero-percent refusal rate — a practice referred to as "slick bunk management" in the beef industry.

Moritz has been able to accomplish his goal consistently since he began feeding the cows at Pond Hill Dairy for a slick bunk almost three years ago. And milk production has not suffered at all.

The cows don't rush the bunk and slug feed, either. Just watch the cows sometime and you'll see. As the feed truck delivers the TMR to a pen of 180 cows in the six-row barn, only 40 or 50 of the cows in the pen get up from their stalls and gradually make their way to the bunk. "If only 40 (cows) get up to eat, we know we're not starving them," Moritz says.

Doesn't hurt milk production
Neither Cottonwood Dairy nor Pond Hill Dairy believes that a tighter feed refusal policy has compromised milk production. The Cottonwood herd tops 90 pounds per cow per day. And, cows at Pond Hill Dairy each put an average of 93 pounds in the tank every day.

"Could I get that extra pound (of milk) if they had a little more (feed) in front of them?" That thought sometimes crosses his mind, admits Randy Larson at Cottonwood. However, he's quick to add that at 5 percent over, "you don't get that much more milk" out of the cows anyway, so you'd just end up wasting feed.

Both dairies will admit that it's tough sometimes to manage for such a low feed-refusal rate. Indeed, it takes commitment and excellent bunk management to make it work (Please see "Bunk management key to success" at right.). If either dairy failed in that regard, feed intake, and consequently milk production, would suffer.

Less leftovers to worry about
It's obvious that feeding cows for a 2-percent to 3-percent feed-refusal rate means you'll push less feed away from the bunk.

For instance, let's say you feed an 8,500-pound ration, on an as-fed basis, to 100 cows — that's about 51 pounds of dry matter per cow per day. With a 5-percent refusal rate, you essentially throw away 425 pounds of that ration every day. However, if you cut your refusal rate in half, you trim that number down to 215 pounds, on an as-fed basis.

While that may be incentive enough to trim your refusal rate, also remember that by trimming your refusal rate you won't have to find as many creative ways to dispose of your cows" leftovers. That's not only a good idea from a biosecurity standpoint, but it's also smart from a nutritional standpoint.

At Cottonwood Dairy, refusals used to find their way to the breeding-age heifers" feed bunk. However, the lactating-cows" leftovers were just too rich for these animals, and they ended up with fat heifers, Larson says. It seemed like a waste, he says, because the refusals didn't match the heifers" needs. By reducing the amount of feed left at the bunk, they not only stopped wasting so much feed, but they also removed some of the burden of how they were going to dispose of the refusals.

And Moritz has basically very little or no leftovers to dispose of each day from the 600 milking cows at Pond Hill Dairy. On average, his feeder Charlie Krakow delivers 420,000 pounds of feed each week. Of that, they toss out about 500 to 600 pounds per week — a mere 70 to 80 pounds per day.

It pays
Perhaps the biggest reason for reducing refusals to 3 percent or less is plain and simple economics.

"As our dairies get bigger, there's a lot of feed that gets hauled back out of the barn," Barmore says. "If refusals could be managed closer to 2 percent to 3 percent across (a 1,000-cow) herd, this would account for $25,000 to $30,000 in feed savings annually," he says.

Both Pond Hill Dairy and Cottonwood Dairy agree a smaller feed bill is the biggest reason why they work so hard to keep refusals low.

Moritz is convinced his slick-bunk approach may have even trimmed his feed cost as much as 10 percent. "Most importantly, though, I think it's improved (my) bottom line," he says.

Cottonwood also has seen a savings. By reducing their feed refusal rate, they save approximately $15,000 per year in feed cost that would otherwise have been discarded or discounted significantly in value, says Barmore, the dairy's nutritional consultant.

Not only that, but it's forced them to become more efficient, Larson adds. That's especially important in times of low milk prices.

Bunk management key to success

At Cottonwood Dairy, South Wayne, Wis., excellent bunk management has helped the 700-cow dairy keep its feed refusal rate under 5 percent.

"We put a lot of attention on the mixing part of the bunk management to ensure fresh, non-sorted TMR is available 24/7," says the dairy's nutritionist Jim Barmore, of Five Star Dairy Consulting in Verona, Wis. "This is one of the keys to (keeping) refusals in the 2-percent to 3-percent range instead of the 5-percent to 6-percent range," he adds.

Excellent bunker face management, regular forage moisture monitoring, continuous inventory supply, high-quality feed ingredients, and a consistent mixing and feeding schedule are just some of the other components of bunk management that have helped them maintain a lower refusal rate without compromising their herd's 90-pound tank average.