Achieving optimal milk production begins at the feedbunk. Keep to a firm push-up schedule and ensure the ration that is formulated is the one being fed.

Smaller margins due to higher feed costs and lower milk prices have been forcing dairy managers to find opportunities to reduce expenses. Often, dairies overlook the potential impact of feedbunk management on the overall profitability of the operation. Are we short changing our herds by our lack of feedbunk management? As we head toward warmer temperatures, it will become more critical to control spoilage and provide fresh feed for the herd.

Let’s start with the ingredients. Do you have excellent forages and quality commodities? Pay attention to the wet feeds and minimize spoilage. Often, new commodity deliveries are placed in front of old inventory. This results in longer storage times for the older feed, leading to more spoilage and shrink. This is especially true for high-moisture ingredients like wet distillers grains or corn gluten. Older feed needs to be removed from the bay before unloading the fresh feed.

Silage face management is also an important factor in reducing spoilage and shrink. With warmer temperatures, microbial activity ramps up, resulting in unstable feed that limits the dry matter intake of cattle. Check silages entering the feeding area for heating. Silages that are heated prior to feed mixing can result in an unstable total mixed ration (TMR) with a shortened feedbunk life. This will cause more refusals, thus reducing intake and milk production. With that said, proper use of silage inoculants at harvest can enhance feedbunk life and inhibit secondary fermentation.

Meet moisture targets

The next step in feedbunk management involves tracking the accuracy of feed mixing and delivery. Various software programs track the loading of ingredients, mixing times, and delivery to pens. While this data is helpful, dairies often do not correctly estimate the dry matter of wet feeds. Test silages and wet by-products on the farm for dry matter content daily, and utilize a five-day rolling average to determine the amounts needed for mixing rations.

Weather events must also be considered, as rain or snow may affect feed moisture content. Adjusting for these changes will ensure proper mixing each day and that the correct amount of dry matter is delivered to the feedbunk. This will also reduce refusals due to incorrect ration formulation.

Other questions to ask include: How closely does the feedbunk need to be managed? What are the stocking densities of the pens? As we raise stocking densities above 100% of the available feedbunk space, we must intensify feedbunk management to ensure all cattle can consume fresh feed. This involves feed distribution along the feedbunk and feed push up.

Feed needs to be distributed evenly along the entire feedbunk. Individual cattle tend to eat from the same area of the feedbunk, and if they move to other areas when feed is limited in their normal space, they may experience a drop in intake. Observing how feed is distributed and consumed from the feedbunk will provide insight into feeder training and feedbunk loading. Sometimes it is necessary to load one area of the feedbunk with a greater amount to match the feeding behavior of the cattle.

Stick to a schedule

As we move into summer, keep in mind that cattle will generally eat more during the cooler hours of the day. Thus, more feed should be delivered during the evening hours. Many farms will feed about 40% of the ration in the morning and 60% in the late afternoon or evening during the summer months. This will generally match the feeding behavior of cattle. Delivering fresh feed at least twice a day is also recommended. This will stave off secondary fermentation in the feedbunk, improving dry matter intake.

Feed push-up between feedings needs to be addressed as well to promote better intake and milk production. Some studies have shown an uptick of 8 pounds of daily milk production when farms pushed up feed compared to when they did not. How often does feed need to be pushed up? This will depend on stocking density and feed delivery.

As stocking density increases, so does the need for feed push-up. Cattle engage in more feeding after fresh feed is delivered, which generally occurs right after milking. This can encourage competition among animals for space at the feedbunk.

If animals are unable to eat, then there will be waves of feeding; however, those animals in the second wave of feeding also need fresh feed. Pushing up feed every 30 minutes for the first two hours after feeding will ensure that all animals have the opportunity to consume fresh, unsorted feed.

Feed generally needs to be pushed up every two hours during the day and night. On smaller farms, this may be difficult between midnight and 6 a.m. because of labor. Autonomous robotic feed pushers are a game changer for small and large dairies because they allow feed push-up to be based on a set schedule throughout the night.

Dig into the data

One of the challenges with feedbunk management is collecting data. Trail or game cameras, or other types of recording devices, can be valuable to document the activities around the feedbunk. Without this, it is difficult to know what is happening at 2 a.m. Many dairies suffer from a lack of feed between midnight and the first delivery of the day; however, lactating dairy cattle need access to feed for at least 22 hours a day.

With the push to reduce feed costs, dairies are striving to reduce refusals to less than 1% in most pens. If we have a 200-cow pen, this is only about 250 pounds of feed distributed over 400 feet of the feedbunk. In other words, this is an empty feedbunk. When does the feedbunk run dry on your dairy? This is another reason why cameras are a necessary tool to understand the condition of the feedbunk throughout the day.

Summer may bring additional challenges to feedbunk management. Cleaning feedbunks daily will ensure that fresh feed is not delivered on top of spoiled and heated feed, and this will prevent secondary fermentation and boost feed intake.

Finally, how much should you invest in improving feedbunk management? Every additional pound of feed consumed can result in an additional 3 pounds of milk production. If milk is worth 20 cents per pound, this is 60 cents per cow per day. Yes, feed costs will be higher, but better milk production will more than offset this expense. Don’t overlook feedbunk management as an opportunity to improve margins on your dairy.

This article appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 26-27.

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