Feeding Behavior Can Signal Issues with Feed Quality, Management

A cow’s environment plays a major role in feeding behavior. In addition to fiber digestibility and particle size of the diet, a cow’s hierarchy among her penmates and her health status also factor into this important management area.
A cow’s environment plays a major role in feeding behavior. In addition to fiber digestibility and particle size of the diet, a cow’s hierarchy among her penmates and her health status also factor into this important management area.

There’s a story to be told in how cows behave while they’re at the feed bunk. Being aware of what they leave behind, how quickly they eat – and more – can offer insights on the quality, mixing and delivery of their feed, as well as other management factors on the farm.

Luiz Ferraretto, PhD, assistant professor and extension specialist in ruminant nutrition at UW-Madison, explained on the May 25 episode of PDPW’s The Dairy Signal™ that these behaviors can impact a cow’s milk production and overall health.

Dr. Ferraretto and his research team measured several feeding behaviors in second-lactation cows and older: the individual intake of feed in real time, how many times a cow enters the feed bunk and how much time she spends there. From that data, they used historical data to identify trends in intake, behavior and production.

While forage quality and digestibility are key factors in a cow’s capability to convert feed into milk, Dr. Ferraretto shared that more recently, researchers are looking at how physical aspects of forages such as particle size and fragility impact cow behavior while eating.

“When the cow has a diet with too many coarse particles or less digestible fiber she will spend more time at the feed bunk sorting for what she actually wants to eat, or she’ll be eating, but it takes longer for her to masticate and swallow that feed,” he said. “When that happens, she is spending more time to eat less food, and consequently she is not resting and very likely will be producing a little less milk.”

The research also studied how different behaviors of herdmates impact the quantity of diet they consume. Some of their findings were unexpected, including the discovery that a cow’s more-frequent trips to the bunk didn’t always correlate with higher consumption of the ration as compared with herdmates.

“We actually saw the opposite,” said Dr. Ferraretto, noting that a cow was going more often to the bunk in search of a specific diet or she was a less-dominant cow that had been pushed away by others.

Dr. Ferraretto recommends producers watch for several behaviors at feedings:

  • If cows are changing positions in the feed bunk rather than staying in one place, they could be competing for a spot or sorting for specific parts of the diet they like.
  • If cows are eating faster than normal, they likely didn’t eat enough the day before or that particular feeding was delayed.
  • If there are spots across the bunk at which specific feed ingredients have been sorted out, check mixing times and the order of ingredients added to the mixer to prevent individual ration components from separating from the others.

“A good connection between nutritional management, diet and forage production, and cow management is ideal,” said Dr. Ferraretto.  “That animal will have a much better opportunity to consume a good diet in the way she wants, then rest and produce more milk.”

In the full episode of “Feeding Behavior Effects on Lactation Performance,” Dr. Ferraretto also shares the impacts of stocking density and the barn environment on feeding behavior, including temperature, lighting and air flow. He also offers recommendations for ensuring consistent forage quality and delivery.

All episodes of The Dairy Signal are archived here. Watch The Dairy Signal™ at 12:00-1:00 P.M. CT each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

About PDPW

Professional Dairy Producers® (PDPW) is the nation's largest dairy producer-led organization of its kind, focusing on producer professionalism, stakeholder engagement and unified outreach to share ideas, solutions, resources and experiences that help dairy producers succeed.



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