Creating the perfect dairy cow dining experience

by Nicolas Marquis

A positive dining experience for cows, or a good, enjoyable meal, allows them to satisfy their basic behavioural needs including eating, relaxing and ruminating. A satisfied cow will be productive, efficient and healthy.

Let’s say you have visitors for dinner. What do you think? The best feeding environment features a well-balanced and appetizing meal; food is available when everyone is hungry; sufficient room at the table for everyone; good spatial planning which naturally encourages guests to come to the table; plenty to drink; emphasis on resting, relaxation and comfort; good air quality, etc. For cows, it is no different except that it is clear that feed should never be lacking: the buffet needs to be open 24/7.

Always in abundance

Your cows are temperamental gourmets? They ask you for special holiday treatment all year round, and even more! How important is feed availability? Well, we know that a cow’s motivation to eat increases markedly after as little as three hours of restricted access.

American research conducted in Nebraska found that having an empty feeder from midnight to 6:00 a.m. reduced milk production by 3.6 kg per cow per day, and reduced the time spent lying down and feeding. A Canadian study showed that restricting access to the feeder for 10 hours per day reduced voluntary dry matter intake by at least 11.5 kg per day and resulted in twice as many trips to the feeder. A third study, conducted with 47 cows with similar genetics and fed the same ration, showed that milk production amongst different farms ranged between 20.4 kg to 33.5 kg per cow per day. This range reflects the different levels of management at the farms and that feed availability in the feeder explains a large part of the variation in milk production among participating farms.

Herds that feed until the cows refuse more feed produced on average 1.8 kg more milk per cow per day. Operations that routinely push the refusal limit upwards produced on average 3.6 kg more milk per cow per day.

No talking at the table

When you prepare your dinner, you probably know who should not be seated together or who is straight up not to be invited. In a free stall herd, this practice is more difficult to manage. We know that overcrowding at the feeder drastically alters normal animal behaviour. Cows will eat fewer but bigger meals and they will rush to devour the amount of feed they need, which may compromise the functioning of the rumen. We also know that, when given the choice, subordinate cows will mostly choose to eat the less palatable feed rather than compete with a dominant cow for access to more palatable feed. This occurs most particularly when space at the feeder is 18 inches or less per cow. Even with 30 inches per cow, about 40% of subordinate cows still choose to avoid a dominant cow even when it means eating less desirable feed. This represents a major challenge for the better design of feeding areas and the application of an appropriate management system.

Uniform Shepherd’s pie

Imagine that when serving your meal, you notice – unfortunately! – that you did not properly layer your Shepherd’s pie. If you hope that your guests will not notice that some parts have more meat and less potato than others, then you are mistaken! Even cows in front of a total (poorly) mixed ration will quickly discover that there are better places at the feeder than others. A common problem is the non-uniform distribution of the ration. When the ration is inconsistent in the feeder, cows know it and have the tendency to “graze” up and down the bunk, which results in increased competition as they jockey to access the best feed. A recent study conducted in British Columbia found 51% more switching of places in feeding location and 3.5 times more competition under these conditions, which greatly reduces feeding efficiencies.

Growing appetite

Dairy cows, like the majority of livestock, naturally have an aggressive and determined drive at the feeder. If it is difficult to get to the feed, they will exert sufficient force against the barriers potentially injuring themselves. If we consistently make them exert great effort and take risks to reach the feed, we are unwittingly training this natural instinct to eat with an appetite and determination. Feed must be pushed back towards the cows as they push it away while eating, which otherwise makes it inaccessible. We know that the first one to two hours after distributing the ration is the most competitive time for cows. Therefore, particular attention must be paid at this crucial time of the meal when we push back the left-overs. An Arizona study revealed that when the left-overs were pushed back every half hour for the first two hours after the meal, compared to only once per hour, the cows produced 1.8 kg more milk per cow per day and were 10% more efficient.

Creating the perfect dairy cow dining experience comes down to ensuring that she can easily eat a uniform meal when she wants, in an environment with minimal competition and where she can relax comfortably afterwards.

Source: Adaptation of creating the perfect [cow] dining experience, Rick Grant, President of the Miner Institute, 2014.

Nicolas Marquis's picture

Nicolas is a dairy specialist at La Coop fédérée.