The current low milk price combined with milk production costs are a cause for concern on many dairy farms. With no control over the base milk price, dairy farmers need to be looking at production costs and management practices to improve the bottom line. Recently I was reviewing some dairy notes from dairy Extension specialists at the University of Kentucky that focused on feed bunk and water trough management. I’ll summarize some of the information in those notes. Attention to these topics could help to improve production and possibly even impact herd health.
One size definitely does not fit all on the dairy farm. There should be rations balanced for the dietary needs of lactating cows, dry cows, heifers and calves. Within the lactating cows there are differing dietary needs depending upon production level and stage of production. Being able to group and feed those groups separately can help to improve production and can save some dollars. Working closely with a herd nutritionist to regularly review rations and make appropriate changes as forage quality and type changes is important.
Make sure cows have adequate feed bunk and water trough space so that they have access to and can consume adequate amounts of a properly balanced ration and drink enough water. Fresh cows should have 36 inches if an open feed bunk is used or 30 inches with headlocks. Later lactation cows need 18-24 inches of space. Dry cows, especially as they get close to calving require about 36 inches of feed bunk space/animal because of their body width.
Milk is 87% water on average and lactating dairy cows require 4.5-5 pounds of water per pound of milk produced. This amount of water comes both from moisture in the feedstuffs and from drinking water. There should be a minimum of 3 linear inches of water space per cow and there should be enough water space for the maximum number of cows in any pen grouping provided in at least 2 locations within that pen.
In order to maintain intake, both water troughs and feed bunks should be routinely cleaned. Clean water troughs weekly. Dump or drain the trough and scrub it with a weak chlorinated solution (1 cup household bleach in 5 gallons of water). After the trough is clean wash out the disinfectant before refilling the trough. Remove uneaten feed from feed bunks daily.
Dairy cows will come to the bunk to eat approximately 10 times/day, eating larger meals after a trip to the milking parlor. Feed should be available 20 to 22 hours/day. Moving from one feeding time/day to two feeding times/day with the ration mixed fresh before each feeding, will promote more trips to the feed bunk, increasing the total amount of dry matter consumed, resulting in higher milk production. In some cases more frequent feed delivery has resulted in improved fiber digestion and higher milk fat percentage. Regardless if the ration feed is delivered one or two times per day, feed should be pushed up at least twice daily to allow easy access to the feed and preventing excessive reaching or going without feed. According to the University of Kentucky dairy specialists, the most critical time for pushing up feed is 2 hours after delivering the feed. Ideally feed should be pushed up every half hour for the first 2 hours after feed delivery to the bunk.
One final area that should be routinely reviewed on the dairy farm is stocking density in regard to stalls in the barn. When milk prices are low it is tempting to increase stocking density, milk more cows and sell more milk. That may work to a point but overstocking can hurt individual cow production and health. Stocking density affects feed bunk and water trough management. The recommended stocking density for fresh cows is 80%, but apart from this stocking density should range between 100 to 120% for all other production classes. Stocking density should not exceed 120% because this will result in decreased lying and resting time for cows. The consequences of overstocking are generally more lameness, increased cow stress, and suppressed immune systems, leading to more health problems.
Managing Feedbunks and Water Troughs: University of Kentucky Dairy Note Article
Maintenance of Dairy Cattle Free Stalls: University of Kentucky Dairy Note Article