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12 Ways Your Efforts Are Actually Making Your Dairy Inefficient!

“NO ONE PLANS TO WASTE RESOURCES.”  A lot of planning and hard work goes into growing, purchasing, and formulating the best feed rations.  But then what do we do with it?  Are we throwing away all that hard work, before it has any opportunity to affect the health and production of our dairy herd?”

“It’s not what a few cows get fairly often, but what the whole herd gets consistently that shapes the success of a milking herd.”

#1 “You forget that the HOW can be as important as the WHAT.”

Simply placing feed in front of the cows and leaving the rest up to them, is a recipe for failure.

This is one of the most important places to use our knowledge of cows’ feeding behavior. We have lots of evidence to build on, using the particular conditions of our own herd.  Have you ever analyzed the difference in the feed from the first cattle to it until the last?

#2 “You’re okay with Survival of the Fittest!”

It could be that the first to the buffet have the pick of everything. The last ones have something quite different. The subordinate cows do not get the same feed. First cows mow down on what’s right in front of them. Like people, cows will eat the stuff they like first.  A knee-jerk solution might be to raise the energy of all rations.  But, once again, you could just be giving more to the boss cows.

#3 “You Don’t MAKE ROOM for ALL your Cows to Reach the Feed!”

Use observation to confirm that the second ones to the feed you are providing have a different selection to choose from.  You will probably be able to confirm that they are getting the sloppy leftovers. If animals are preventing other animals from getting to the best feed, you have to make some changes.  Or not. The goal is to provide enough bunk space to allow all animals to eat simultaneously. You might also decide to add a physical solution such as headlocks or a partition. These steps will limit the number of cows that can eat at one time, but they will also make it harder for one cow to push another one away from feed.

#4 You provide WAITING room, not EATING room!”

It may appear to be normal behavior for cows to be waiting to get to the feed bunk.  The only problem with this assessment of normal is that it is causing abnormal problems in other areas of the daily dairy cow routine.  While waiting, the cows lose resting time and, in turn, this will decrease milk production.

#5 “You WON’T sort the Cows! “

There are many reasons given for not sorting cows.  You can run through them in your head.  In reality, when cows are fed a TMR they have a natural tendency to sort through the feed.  They then toss it forward to where it is no longer in reach. This is the reason that shy cows have to reach and lick even to get “seconds.” This is particularly problematic when feed is delivered via a feed alley.

#6.  “You Let THE COWS SORT the Feed!”

When you are told about the benefits of grouping you prefer to follow a more familiar, but probably less effective, path. There are benefits to creating a first lactation group.  Older cows will not be able to push smaller ones away from the feed bunk. With specific grouping, the ration can be modified for the specific needs of these younger animals.

#7 “To save work, you accept the DOWNSIDE of Less Frequent PUSH UPS.”

When it comes to getting cows to make milk from the feed you put in front of them – it makes sense that the feed must actually get in front of them.  Frequent push ups stimulate cows to eat.  Adding more feed to push ups will attract cows that haven’t had enough feed intake for the day to get up and eat. When feeding dairy cows, it’s good to let push come to shove!

#8 “Your Cows are Lying Down, and Your Infections are Rising”

Okay, we are now behind the #8 ball.  Suffice it to say cows that are laying down are not merely contented especially if it occurs right after they’ve been milked.  Here is what research has proven. “Results suggest that management practices that discourage cows from lying down immediately after milking, such as providing fresh food frequently through the day (near the time of milking) may help decrease the risk of intramammary infection.  For robotic milked cows, which milk frequently throughout the day, ensuring continual access to feed in the bunk via frequent fresh feed delivery as well as feed push-up is important to promote standing time after milking and reduce the risk of intramammary infection (DeVries et al., 2011b).”

#9 “You Mistakenly believe that cows CAN make up for LOST TIME!”

It is important to understand that cows do not make up for lost time.  The idea that they will self-manage by coming back to the feed bunk is….bunk. What actually happens is that cows will eat 25 percent faster and eat larger meals. “This will lead to ruminal acidosis, which happens when the pH of the rumen drops drastically for an extended period of time.  Acidosis in dairy cows can result in lower milk yields, lower milk fat yield, and sole ulcers.”

#10 “Your cows need MORE WATER, and Your PROFITS are DRYING UP TOO! “

Another forgotten nutrient is water. Water is perhaps the most necessary nutrient (NRC, 2001), yet its quality and availability is often overlooked.  Interestingly, in a recent field study of free-stall herds in Eastern Ontario, Sova et al. (2013) found that that milk yield tended to increase by 0.77 kg/d for every 2 cm/cow increase in water trough space available in the study herds.

This result illustrates the importance of water availability for group housed cows and provides further evidence that resource availability has the potential to greatly impact productivity. (Read more: USING KNOWLEDGE OF DAIRY COW BEHAVIOUR TO IMPROVE NUTRITIONAL AND HOUSING MANAGEMENT)

#11 “Increased Frequency is too much for you to consider!”

No doubt you are aware that problems listed here for making better use of your feed dollars are repetitive.  We are aware of that, and we are striving to make the point — over and over again — that dairy cows need to be able to eat frequent, small meals when they want to.  Feed less feed more often.  (Read more: CALF FEEDING FREQUENCY: The more often, the merrier?)

#12 “Small Changes (see #’s 1-11) Make a BIG Difference! Do you care?”

We all would like someone to “Show me the money!” and “Show me the research” question too.  Because nothing will help if you aren’t willing to take action. Here’s some useful facts to start you planning your action strategy. The results are measurable. 

Bach et al. (2008) found in a cross-sectional study of 47 herds, fed the exact same ration, that 56% of the variation in observed milk production was explained by non-dietary factors (i.e. presence or absence of feed refusals, free stall stocking density, and whether feed was pushed up in the feed bunk).

Sova et al. (2013), found in a cross-sectional study of parlour-milked, free-stall herds that every 10 cm/cow increase in feed bunk space was associated with 0.06 percentage point increase in group average milk fat and a 13% decrease in group-average somatic cell count.  

Research suggests that feed push-up does not have the same stimulatory impact on feeding activity as does fresh feed delivery (DeVries et al.,2003); nonetheless, push up does play a vital role in ensuring that feed is accessible when cows want to eat.


Managing a profitable dairy isn’t about what you DON’T do.  It’s time to turn those negatives into positives.

  1. How you feed dairy cows is just as important as WHAT you feed them.
  2. Provide equal opportunity feed access for ALL dairy cows.
  3. Start by making room for ALL cows to reach the feed.
  4. Provide at least the recommended bunks space of 24 inches.
  5. Sort cows. Create a first lactation group.
  6. Find an effective way to prevent feed sorting
  7. Push feed up frequently.
  8. Prevent excessive lying down time right after milking.  Cut down on infections.
  9. Recognize that managing cow behavior also manages your profits.
  10. Provide clean, easily accessible water.
  11. Feeding frequency can positively affect milk production.
  12. Have an action plan so that the small things can actually make a BIG difference.


There are many steps from field to feed bunk.  Each small decision along the way can affect the outcome in the milking line. Profitable dairies don’t squander dairy feed dollars. The future of the herd depends on achieving the best results from all your feed all the time.

“It’s not what a few cows get fairly often, but what the whole herd gets consistently that shapes the success of a milking herd.”



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