Ken Bolton has a cheap and simple suggestion for maximizing intake — regular feed bunk exams.

“Filling the bunks is such a part of the daily routine that sometimes producers don't take time to assess whether they're feeding too much or too little,” says Bolton, University of Wisconsin extension dairy and livestock agent in Jefferson County. “Regular, visual assessments of feed bunks is one of the critical control points dairy producers need to pay more attention to.”

Check bunks regularly one hour before feeding, he advises. In a free-stall operation, check all areas where feed is offered. In a tie-stall barn, examine all bunk areas in front of cows.

After looking at the bunks, use the following scoring system, developed by Penn State University researchers:

0) No feed.

1) Scattered feed left (less than 5% of amount fed).

2) Thin layer remaining (5-10% of amount fed).

3) A layer of 2-3” remaining (approximately 25% of amount fed).

4) Three or more inches remaining (more than 50% of amount fed)

5) Feed untouched.

If the score is 0 or 1, feeding should be increased by 5% or more until a score of 2 is observed, recommends Bolton.

“A score of 0 or 1 is indicative of underfeeding the herd,” he says. “Any time cows are cleaning up the last 5% of feed, there are some, if not all, cows that are not eating to their maximum intake.”

A score of 2 is ideal as long as the cows will be fed within an hour.

A score of 3 indicates overfeeding.

“Bunks should be cleaned out and the amount of feed offered should be reduced by 5%. Forage dry matter and feeding programs should be checked to see what the reason is for the excess feed remaining. Stale or moldy feed or incorrect mixes being offered are often the cause.”

A 4 or 5 score represents serious problems and calls for immediate changes to the feeding program, Bolton warns. Seek the help of a dairy nutritionist if scores are in this range.

Regular bunk assessments and scoring are the key to making this system work.

“Weather conditions and other deviations from normal daily operations can affect dry matter intakes and lead to day-to-day fluctuations,” says Bolton. “Therefore, producers should use common sense if they check the feed bunk only once.”