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Are Cows Getting Enough to Eat? Try the “Semicircle” Test

There are plenty of dairy cows that have the genetic and physical potential to make more milk, but they simply aren’t getting enough to eat at the time they want to eat it, according to seasoned dairy veterinarian, nutritionist, and cow-comfort expert, Dr. Gordie Jones.

On a recent edition of “Have you Herd,” the official podcast of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, Jones told AABP Executive Director Fred Gingrich that cows are programmed to eat the most at their first-morning feeding.

“Cattle are a slow-moving, prey species” Jones explained. “In their original habitat, if they went out at night, they would be killed. So, they are naturally ‘crepuscular’ animals, meaning they prefer to be most active in low light, at dawn and dusk.”

Consequently, their first meal after morning milking is the most important one of the day, and Jones believes it’s a time when many cows are underfed.

“If you’re working around cows in the morning and you see a telltale, clean semi-circle in front of them, that means they haven’t gotten enough to eat at that feeding. They haven’t taken their last bite, but they can’t, either because they’re not able to reach it, or there simply isn’t enough feed there.”

Jones cited data from Dr. Jose Santos at the University of Florida repeatedly showing that cows want to eat the most at their first-morning feeding – up to 30-35% of their total DMI for the day. “We are underfeeding cows at exit from the parlor across the world,” Jones declared.

This makes morning feed delivery and push-up critical priorities. Jones suggested delivering at least 60% of the day’s total feed allocation at the first morning meal, to ensure that every cow gets all she wants at that first feeding. Even with current high feed costs, he said the practice is worth it.

“At today’s feed prices, a pound of feed runs about 12-15 cents,” he noted. “But that last pound of DMI will yield about 2.5 pounds of milk, which currently is worth about 62 cents. So that last pound of feed produces about a 4:1 return, if we can get it into the cow.”

Jones offered an interesting metric to assess whether or not a herd is allowing cows access to their preferred “last bites.” He said there should be at least 1 to 3 cows in every herd that are doubling the herd’s average production. So, an 80-pound herd would have a few 160-pound cows; a 90-pound herd would have at least one cow making 180 pounds.

“When I’m looking at bottlenecks in a herd, if they don’t have that handful of cows that are doubling the average, they are restricting intake at the time cows want to eat the most,” he advised. “And if you are seeing concrete in front of cows after feed delivery in the morning and before noon, that farm is losing out on last bites, and on milk production potential.”

Maureen Hanson

August 11, 2022


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