Get summer feeding right to safeguard winter production

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Length: 738 words; 3-4 minutes

Individual dairy cow image

Inadequate feeding of early and mid-lactation cows through late summer and early autumn can have serious knock-on effects for winter milk production, warns KW nutritionist Dr Anna Sutcliffe .

“As milk yield potential from grazed grass drops towards zero around mid-September, it’s easy for cows to lose an extra 0.5 body condition score (BCS) if buffer feeding doesn’t adequately make up the shortfall,” she highlights. “Not only will summer milk production potential be compromised, but cows will also prioritise replacing lost condition over milk production once fully housed.

Winter milk losses

According to figures from Trouw nutrition, the energy needed to replace 0.5 BCS equates to a daily milk yield loss of 1.9 litres/cow for the first three months of winter. That’s worth around £9,000 for a 200 cow herd, even at 26ppl, and is more than three times the cost of the feed needed to maintain condition during the summer, claims Dr Sutcliffe.

“…avoid the many additional knock-on effects of losing excess BCS during early lactation…”

“Feeding just 2.25kg FW/cow/day of a moist feed like Traffordgold wheat-gluten  moist feed through September and October would provide the same amount of total energy, but cost less than £2,500. It will also help avoid the many additional knock-on effects of losing excess BCS during early lactation, such as poor fertility and greater risk of lameness, both of which are costly and can increase the number of unplanned culls longer-term,” Dr Sutcliffe adds.

“It’s been shown that as much as 50% of the lameness risk in early lactation is due to BCS loss, for example. This is likely due to a thinning of the fat pad in the foot – the digital cushion – that protects against pressure injuries, such as those that lead to sole ulcers.”

According to Dr Sutcliffe, the priority should be cows that will provide a good return over the additional costs of feeding. Focus on cows that have calved since the start of June, and minimise costs per litre by choosing feeds that provide the best value, rather than price per tonne.

“Maintaining nutrient intake is the key, and that comes down to a combination of dry matter intake (DMI) and ration nutrient density,” she explains. “The best value feeds tend to be those that are nutrient dense, which has the added advantage of requiring a lower DMI for a given nutrient supply.”

Driving higher intakes

In addition to value, moist feeds like Traffordgold, brewers’ grains and draff will add considerable palatability – and intake potential – to high fibre buffer feeds. The same is true of the various distillery syrups and molasses-based feeds, such as Beetmol Flow and Molale. Many of the alternative starch feeds are also worth considering, despite the falling price of cereals.

Traffordgold image
Traffordgold is a great source of digestible fibre and high quality protein.

“Processed bread for under 25p/kg starch costs around 7% less than rolled wheat at 27p/kg starch (figure 1), plus has a higher energy density (14.0MJ ME/kg DM versus 13.6MJ ME/kg DM) and contains more protein (14% CP versus 12% CP),” Dr Sutcliffe continues. 

“It means that in many cases, changing to better value feeds and reformulating the diet to match can provide the extra nutrients needed for little extra outlay. However, there are also situations where additional investment is justified, such as choosing more rumen-friendly starch feeds like Soda Wheat when the acidosis risk is already high.”

Figure 1 – Comparison between the value of feeds per unit of starch and energy (click to enlarge)

With lower yielders or late lactation cows requiring much less additional feed until even October if conditions remain good, splitting the herd into separate feeding groups is another strategy worth pursuing. This will allow the nutrient density of the buffer feed to be increased for some cows without risking low yielding cows putting on excess BCS, and make it possible to house those high yielders when necessary.

“Early lactation cows should ideally be housed overnight by now to maintain nutrient intakes,” outlines Dr Sutcliffe. “It’s also important to optimise the use of grazing for later lactation cows wherever possible.

“In the end it comes down to being realistic about expectations for milk from grazing as autumn progresses, and that it’s not just current production that’s at stake. Winter production depends heavily on investment in good quality, appropriate feeding now.”

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