Competition in the Dairy Barn
July 17, 2020
John Tyson - Penn State Extension
I'm a huge College Sports fan, and while I always want a Penn State win, I also think a competitive football game with the Michigan Wolverines is better to watch than a blowout. However, the same cannot be said for your dairy barn. Cows that must compete for resources like, feed, water, and resting space are under more stress and may suffer production losses and health issues due to that competition.
Research shows Dairy cattle fed a TMR typically consume their daily dry matter in 3 to 5 h/d, spread between 7 to 12 meals per day (DeVries, T, 2019). An increase in dry matter intake can be achieved with more frequent meals over a longer total time at the bunk. However, when cows must complete at the feed bunk the same research shows they consume fewer, larger meals with a reduced feeding time. The opposite of what you want cows to do to maximize dry matter intake and it can create slug feeding episodes.
What might cause competition at the bunk? The first easy place to look is feed space. While for a long time the rule of thumb for adequate feed space has been 24 inches per cow, if we take time to observe the modern Holstein dairy cow it can easily be seen they are a few inches wider than that. For all cows in a group to comfortably eat at the same time, feed space needs to be closer to the 28 to 30 inches per cow range.
Feed space is not the only factor coming into play here. It's a combination of feed space, feed area design, feed availability, and access, along with feeding management. The feed table surface needs to be easy to clean and keep clean. Silage is acidic and will erode plain concrete feed table surfaces. Surfaces like tile, poly, stainless steel, and even some concrete additives are resistant to the acid and will keep the feed table smooth after years of use. The feed barrier which might be a post and rail or headlock needs to allow cows easy access to the feed in front of them. Cows are willing to exert 500 pounds of pressure against the barrier to reach feed while only 225 pounds of pressure can cause tissue damage to their necks and shoulders. If you have a post and rail design, the rail needs to be high enough and forward enough for animals to easily reach under it for their feed. This height is often set at 48 inches above the cows' front feet and four to eight inches ahead of the feed curb. Headlocks should be tilted forward 15 to 20 degrees to allow better reach and comfort. Feed needs to be available to cows and cows need to be available to the feed at least 21 hours per day. Delivering fresh feed multiple times per day also will motivate feeding activity. Feed push-ups, particularly within the first two hours post feeding and/or post milking, are needed to keep feed within reach of cows at the bunk.
Keep in mind that one of the most important feed ingredients for dairy cows is water. Water makes up 87% of the milk given by a cow, and drinking water satisfies 80 to 90 % of a cow's total water needs. Waterers in freestall or loose housing should have a large open surface area to drink from, presented water 24 to 32 inches above the floor, have a minimum depth of 3 inches, have a capacity of 30 to 50 gallons, and since two or more cows can drink at once it needs a minimum fill rate of 10 gallons per minute. Provide three and a half to four inches of accessible waterer perimeter per cow in the group, with at least two water stations per group, and placed a maximum of 60 to 80 feet apart. A water-use study showed that in a freestall having three crossovers with waterers in each crossover, 42% of total water use was at the center crossover, 32% at the parlor exit/return end of the shelter, and 25% at the far end of the shelter (Brouk, M. et al, 2001 and 2002). This makes sense with more cow traffic in the center of the barn than either end.
If the design and/or management of your dairy housing is limiting the cow's access to resources like feed and water, you are inevitably limiting production. While competition may make a great football game, it's not great dairy management.