How to Manage Dairy Cow Feed Rations

Cow : Lactating Cow Nutrition

Kevin Dill, Ph.D.

Director of Dairy Technical Innovation

Percentages work well when talking ingredients in dairy cow feed rations, but they don’t provide much information on the amount of nutrition consumed by the cow. After all, cows eat amounts not percentages.
Imagine what you could do with the knowledge of how much feed (in pounds) a cow or group of cows ate. Sure, it takes time to record the amount of delivered to each pen and measure how much is left after the cows finish eating. But, the resulting intake data can provide a wealth of insightWhy should you measure dairy cow feed rations? To ensure cows are healthy, increase feed efficiency, understand needed ration adjustments and measure feed inventory.s.
Here are a few examples of what the data can tell you:

Are health challenges on the horizon?

Tracking feed intake can help identify early health challenges. For instance, if a pen of cows averages 90 pounds of milk but only averages 55 pounds of feed consumed per cow could be a red flag. A high-producing cow consuming less feed than predicted could be losing weight and headed for problems. 

Are you getting the most out of your dairy cow feeding plan?

Feed intake and milk production work hand in hand to provide you with another valuable metric, feed efficiency. Feed efficiency in the simplest terms is the pounds of milk produced per pound of dry matter consumed. Calculate feed efficiency on a regular basis and adjust the ration as needed to achieve the efficiency and profitability objectives.

Are ration adjustments working?

When you make changes to lactating cow diets, milk production typically goes up or down. But, it’s hard to determine if the production change was due to the ration adjustment if you don’t know feed consumption. The cows simply could have eaten more.

Do I have enough feed?

If you know how much your cows are eating, you understand your feed needs. For example, if you know you are using an average of 44 pounds of corn silage each day, you can easily manage corn silage inventory. This information is also helpful in situations where you need to plan to stretch feed inventories.  

How much are my dairy cows actually eating per day?

There’s a wealth of information to be learned from measuring dairy cow feed intake. So, how do you measure consumption? There are several software programs available for purchase that can simplify the task. Review options with your nutritionists or other trusted advisor.
To get started on your own, follow the steps below to calculate how much cows are eating:
  1. Record the starting weight of the TMR.
  2. Stop between each pen or barn to record the amount of feed delivered each feeding. Individual pen weights are key to determine what each pen is fed and in-turn eating.
  3. Record feed refusals or weigh backs by pen or barn before the next feeding.
  4. Subtract feed refused from feed delivered to get feed consumed. (Pounds feed delivered – Pounds feed refused = Pounds feed consumed)
  5. Follow this process for every feeding and do calculations weekly.
Can’t get enough? Read how to properly spot feed utilization to help you manage your rations more efficiently.