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Archive: Feeding Dairy Cows

Published 3 November 09

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Feeding a dairy cow correctly throughout her lactation can be a difficult task. But it can also yield significant rewards, by improving feed conversion efficiency, boosting productivity, cutting costs and reducing health problems, according to DairyCo extension officer Piers Badnell.

Since the launch of DairyCo's feeding+ programme last year, he has noticed a significant improvement on some dairy units, with farmers potentially saving up to 2p/litre through more efficient feeding and nutrition. "feeding+ was developed by four highly respected nutrition specialists, to help farmers identify areas in which improvements could be made. As well as running a series of meetings, we provided farmers with a manual to keep on the farm, which they could refer to whenever necessary. By using this information, as well as working closely with their own vets and nutritionists, some of our farmers have seen dramatic improvements in their herd health and productivity."

One farmer who keeps the feeding+ manual in constant use is James Lawton, from North Farm, Aldbourne, Wiltshire. "We have one manual open in the farm office and another in the dairy office - the first was so popular that I had to get another copy," he says. "It is very easy to use, and very practical. Whenever we have a query or debate something within the team we refer to it - it is available all the time." Milking 230 Holstein Friesians on the Marlborough Downs, Mr Lawton struggles to grow as much grass as he would like. This year he is feeding a third grass silage to two-thirds wholecrop maize, alongside a tailored blend of protein and minerals with caustic treated wheat and soya hulls. "This allows us to tweak the diet between the high and low yielders." However, he would like to move to a 50:50 grass silage and wholecrop maize forage mix. "If we could feed more grass silage it would be beneficial - acidosis is always at the back of my mind."

Block calving between the end of August and the end of February, the cows average 8500 litres, with a rolling average butterfat of 4.08% and protein of 3.4%. Mr Lawton feeds a Total Mixed Ration, and pays close attention to the chop length and mix. "The diet needs to be well mixed, but it has to be light and fluffy too. We periodically float it in a bucket of water to make sure it forms a raft to float in the rumen." He prefers not to feed in the parlour, to speed up milking and foster steadier eating of a TMR instead of straight cake. The cows are fed after each milking and then turned onto fresh pasture blocks every morning to encourage aggressive grazing. All the cows calve inside on deep straw yards, and are loose housed for about six months over the winter.

In a bid to minimise changes in the diet, Mr Lawton aims for a short, 35-day dry period, moving the cows off the tailored milking ration, onto a transition diet, before moving back onto a milking ration after calving. Any cows with high somatic cell counts are given a three-week dry period on grass, before moving onto the transition diet three weeks before calving. "The transition period is crucial, because you're trying to get everything right for the following lactation," he says. "We use a lot of straw in the transition mix, to maintain an actively working rumen. It is then fitter to cope with the dairy diet after calving, and it also reduces the incidence of displaced abomasums."

Mr Lawton also heavily buffer feeds throughout the year, to try and maintain condition and productivity. "Measuring body condition scores can be a struggle - we need to do more of it. But we look at rumen fill on a daily basis - it is incredibly important." Although he works closely with a feed consultant when forming the cows' rations, he and his two farm workers regularly refer to the feeding+ manual, in conjunction with DairyCo's other publications, pd+, grass+ and breeding+. "It is a very useful, farmer-friendly series, which we find very valuable. With a dairy cow you have to get everything right - and it's nice to double-check our details every now and again. It helps to refresh our minds and gives us a clearer picture of what we're doing."