How to increase dry matter intake

1 extra meal equals more energy-corrected milk

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WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. — Getting one extra meal into a cow each day can directly impact production. Encouraging cows to make one more trip to the bunk and maximizing what they eat while at the bunk will increase dry matter intake and push pounds of milk higher.

This topic was the focus of Kathryn Elliott’s presentation, “Managing for more dry matter intake,” during the Professional Dairy Producers Business Conference March 13-14 in Wisconsin Dells.

Elliott is a dairy consultant and technical support specialist at ProAGtive Dairy Nutrition.

“Having cows eat more is a simple way to drive energy-corrected milk higher,” Elliott said. “Cows eat about 12 meals per day. Let’s try to get them to that 13th meal with one more visit to the bunk. Another few pounds of dry matter intake will result in more milk.”

When trying to increase DMI, Elliott said there are two things to watch for.

“If cows eat more, you don’t want the DMI to go wild and not see an increase in ECM, or you’re not going to be profitable,” she said. “If cows are eating 61.5 pounds and are still not at 100 pounds of ECM, you need to dive in and see if this is a rate of passage issue and get that fixed first.”

Elliott said the cost per pound of dry matter also needs to be in line.

“As they eat more, that is also a cost, and we need to make sure it stays profitable,” she said.

The first step in promoting an additional trip to the bunk is to minimize time away from feed.

“Eating, drinking and lying time all help drive DMI higher,” Elliott said. “We need to pivot to activities that help a cow max out the ones that will help her eat the most.”

Elliott said top-production herds may spend two hours on milking and management; whereas, time away from the pen for lower-production herds is high, creating a bottleneck on eating and lying time.

Sometimes, a couple of pens are the main contributors to a high time away from feed, such as those furthest from the parlor or pens that are overstocked. To rectify the issue, Elliott said to begin by focusing on a couple of pens rather than the entire herd at once.

Feed to higher refusals to make sure bunks are never empty. Push up feed every hour to ensure cows always have feed in front of them. Limit the amount of time the bunk is empty between refusal and fresh feed drop.

“Cleaning refusal for two pens at once may result in a 30-minute timeframe of an empty bunk for one pen, and that’s 30 minutes those cows could have been eating,” Elliott said. “Try to time these things with when cows are at the parlor, and they’ll never know the bunk was empty.”

Another option is to push old feed to the end of the bunk, drop off new feed and have someone pick up the refusal later, Elliott said.

Elliott cautioned against continual regrouping of cows as it causes increased displacements from the feed bunk.

“Every time you regroup, there’s a bully cow that intimidates cows for three days,” she said. “That’s almost half a week that you could have cows getting pushed from the feed bunk. We want to try and limit the amount of regrouping, especially on high-stocked pens.”

To minimize social stress, limit additions to each group to once a week maximum, and separate first-lactation cows into their own group.

DMI in the first few weeks of lactation is connected to higher peak milk; therefore, pay special attention to the post-fresh pen.

“The post-fresh pen is extremely important to manage in order to max out DMIs,” Elliott said. “Every time we have a spike of cows calving in, we may see a limit on dry matter intake unless managing for that. Make sure feed is always available to these cows, and try to move cows out of those pens as quickly as possible to make room for the next ones calving in.”

Making sure cows have plenty to drink is critical.

“Water is extremely important,” Elliott said. “Poor water quality and poor access to water will limit dry matter intake.”

Lameness is another factor that impacts the number of eating bouts. One herd Elliott worked with bedded once a week and had cows suffering from swollen hocks and knees. When they began bedding twice a week and putting in more sand, lameness issues significantly declined.

“There are simple things you can do to help cows make that extra trip to the bunk,” Elliott said.

Pests, such as flies, can also limit how often cows eat.

“Flies are a small nuisance but can have a big economic impact,” Elliott said. “Cows bunch with high fly populations, and in this situation, they won’t make an extra trip to the bunk.”

The use of fly control can help reduce this risk. Lay out insecticides, put chitin inhibitors in feed to disrupt the development of fly larvae and ensure proper wind speed in the barn.

Once a cow gets to the bunk for that extra meal, make sure she is being rewarded with a meal she can fully utilize. For example, too much fiber or poorly digestible fiber limits DMI.

“We create rumen fill as fiber goes up, and then we see DMI go down,” Elliott said. “There is a portion of neutral detergent fiber that’s digestible and a portion that’s undigestible. If we make more of it digestible, that automatically allows a cow to eat more.”

Elliott said a one-unit increase in NDF digestibility is associated with a 0.37-pound increase in DMI. Adding 10 points of relative forage quality to haylage often results in a gain of more than one point of NDF digestibility. As digestibility increases, indigestibility decreases and the percentage of total fiber decreases.

“You can feed more of this digestible haylage, and cows will eat more and make more milk,” Elliott said. “The same thing goes for corn silage. As the plant becomes more digestible, the undigestible portion goes down, and you can feed more of this feed. How we process these forages also helps how the cow eats.”

Elliott said chopping forages to a shorter particle length reduces chewing time and increases intake. This strategy also works on a slightly mature forage to salvage quality.

“You can get more milk out of a higher uNDF (undigestible neutral detergent fiber) forage by chopping it shorter,” Elliott said. “You can’t reverse high uNDF forage, but you can minimize the negative impact on the cow by pre-processing to a shorter length.”

When looking at starch sources, Elliott said not all starch is the same.

“High-moisture shell corn is mainly digested in the rumen, while dry corn is mainly digested in the intestine,” she said. “You don’t want to provide a starch that goes straight to her rumen and is digested in one hour. Instead, you want to provide a blend that gets digested in the rumen and intestine throughout the day.”

Important considerations when analyzing the blend of high-moisture corn are length of fermentation, digestibility, particle size and moisture.

“When moving from a dry cow ration to a post-fresh ration, the starch level is going to change a lot,” Elliott said. “Too much fermentable starch in early lactation can cause satiety. I’m not saying we can’t feed high-moisture corn; we just need to be aware of how much fermented starch is in the post-fresh ration. This can be an opportunity to help DMI during the post-fresh period.”

Elliott recommends feeding higher metabolizable protein in the pre-fresh ration of first-lactation animals to drive them to eat more in the post-fresh ration. During lactation, rumen degradable protein drives DMI.

“Make sure you have enough rumen degradable protein early on in lactation and during peak milk production,” Elliott said. “That helps keep rumen bugs going and keeps the rumen healthy.”

Enticing cows to the bunk for an additional meal and ensuring that meal is full of everything they need will have positive results on both DMI and ECM yield.

“From where you are today, if you can carry out some or all of these opportunities on your farm to manage for more DMI, you will see more energy-corrected milk,” Elliott said.

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