As a veterinarian, rumen buffers may not be on your radar. While they are included in the ration, buffers are important to you because they impact many of the challenges you troubleshoot every day—from rumen acidosis to lameness to milk component production.

Today’s high-energy ration formulations often limit dairy cows from generating enough natural buffer—saliva—causing excess acid to build up in the rumen.

The addition of ration ingredients like feed-grade sodium bicarbonate or sodium sesquicarbonate, fed at optimum levels, help overcome this challenge. That’s because buffers stabilize rumen acids, increasing feed intake and improving rumen performance. This counteracts rumen upsets, reduces off-feed instances and enhances milk component production for enhanced productivity.

Lessons from the Past

The value of buffers has long been proven. Research from 1965 shows that buffers positively impact cow health and performance. However, today’s dairy rations frequently feature buffer feeding rates lower than fed historically. The reasons why buffers should be included at higher levels is often forgotten. As a result, it’s not unusual for inclusion rates to have drifted downward over time.

However, dairies feed cows differently than in the past—rations are not usually comprised of about 50/50 corn silage and haylage.

Today’s diets include more fermentable carbohydrates. Rations also minimize fiber (physically effective NDF) and rely more on microbial protein and fermentation than in the past. In addition, variation in feed ingredient quality plays a significant role in ration performance.

All of these factors point to the need for more buffering, not less.

Also, overcrowded facilities force cows to slug feed, rather than eat small meals more often. This behavior frequently contributes to rumen acidosis. Keep in mind the purpose of buffers is to smooth out the bouts of acidosis that cows will experience from time to time—the objective is to keep the number and duration of these incidents at a minimum.

Given the recommended inclusion rates, a cow eating 60 pounds of dry matter per day should receive at least 0.5 pounds of buffer per day—not the 0.25 pounds many cows receive.

For example, a Midwest dairy increased the amount of ration buffer from 0.25 pounds per day to 0.5 pounds per day and within months experienced fewer health incidents, improved rumination time, lowered laminitis incidence by 11 percentage points and milk fat production consistently rose 0.25 percent.

When buffer levels are fed at adequate levels, your clients will also likely see more consistent dry matter intake and solids-corrected milk and/or energy-corrected milk production brought about by a better and healthier rumen environment.

You probably won’t see an immediate and dramatic response. Instead, you can expect a measureable improvement in a month or two. You and your clients will also note reduce variability in dry matter intake, milk and milk component production.

To learn more, visit