Cows Have Got to Want to Eat
Updated: Jun 22
Every dairy farmer wants to produce more milk. To get a cow to produce firstly she must have the feed in front of her. Sadly, this is not always the case. How farmers think about feeding cows is deeply ingrained in their psyche and in many instances to suggest cows are underfed is to question the very essence of a farmer’s being. And, it’s a good way for a consultant to get the sack. So, in the interests of diplomacy it’s assumed that every herd is fed to requirements!
Fundamentally, a cow has got to want to eat. And, once eaten, that feed must be turned into milk as efficiently as possible. When you boil all this down, it’s the same three issues affecting appetite and feed conversion efficiency and all of them are acting on the cow at spring time.
The first (and yes, I am banging on about it again) is milk fever. Interventions at calving e.g. drenching with fresh cow products, may control clinical milk fever but it does not mean that milk fever is not acting on the herd. Additionally, such “prevention” only acts at the point of calving whereas milk fever can affect the herd throughout the season. For this reason, we should be very interested in the factors causing sub-clinical milk fever in our herds.
An interesting statistic is that there is a 70% reduction in the strength and frequency of contraction of smooth muscle (muscle of the gut and uterus) before any clinical signs of milk fever are seen. That’s a lot of cows not eating enough and we wouldn’t even know. Subclinical milk fever can also result in increased numbers of assisted calving, infected uterus, greater risk of retained membranes, dead and weak calves, mastitis and more. We have just about every issue faced by cows and farmers in the spring all wrapped up in this one syndrome and we haven’t even mentioned down cows.
Second is ketosis. Ketosis is often dismissed as a normal phenomenon that we can’t do anything about. Negative energy balance is something we can’t do anything about but when negative energy balance doesn’t resolve we have ketosis. Ketosis can be hard to pick in a herd. Appetite (again) is reduced, weight loss in enhanced and milk production profiles can be confusing. A ketotic herd will peak earlier but will not peak as high or as long i.e. milk production can seem reasonable at the time. Ketosis will also increase the risk of milk fever, mastitis and infected uterus.
And thirdly, trace elements. Trace element supplementation is not just preventing a deficiency but rather providing sufficient amounts to meet production demands. A 600kg Friesian is a different beast from a 400kg jersey. Soil type, fertiliser choices, sward composition, ration choices all affect trace element intakes. The same product off the shelf for all these scenarios is really a nonsense. Trace elements drive energy efficiency and deficiencies and toxicities enhance disease processes. Getting them right is simple and cost effective.
Cows have got to want to eat. Factors limiting intakes include milk fever, ketosis and trace element levels. Production and dietary data will reveal how these factors are acting on your herd. Get them eating, they’ll frighten you how much they can stack away and they’ll reward you in the vat!