The Second Worst Way to Feed Cows

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A ration out of balance is the second worst way to feed cows and expect them to perform in a sustained, profitable way. What is the worst? Feeding them junk; luckily this is less common, but out of balance rations certainly aren’t. Point of the story – feed your cows well and they will look after you. Only well-fed, healthy cows will perform profitably.

This cliché is easier said than done. I realise that, but there are good examples around showing it is achievable. There is so, so much to cow nutrition that I would love to divulge, but if we did, we’ll be here until my two year old daughter goes to sleep in her bed, by herself. Also, the intention here is not to make this space a boring ruminant nutrition ramble, but to reiterate the importance of good, well balanced nutrition to get the best possible performance, accompanied by the highest profits, out of our much-loved, four-legged ladies.

Daniel Espinosa inspecting the herd.

Right, so let’s get some basics clear, so the rest will make sense:

Energy is not a nutrient. No, it’s not. It’s what we can get out of the different nutrients. It is not measured routinely in the lab, but calculated using different algorithms. Key message here: Do not get too attached to this value to determine the feed quality or ration balance. Energy is an indicator and by itself does not say much. In fact, by itself it can be very misleading because we do not know where the energy is coming from.

  • Nutrients are: proteins, carbohydrates (i.e. sugar, starch and fibre, yes fibre is a carbohydrate), fats and oils (very high energy, very bad news for the rumen function), minerals and vitamins. Most importantly, these are the ones we need to balance out.
  • With cows, not only do we need to cover their nutritional requirements, but also, and probably more importantly so, the bugs inside the cow’s rumen. This is the bit that makes cows so incredible – their rumen bugs. Without them, cows could not live and produce on grass. A dysfunctional rumen is synonymous of a dysfunctional cow. And there is nothing more unprofitable that a bunch of dysfunctional cows.
  • Last but not least, nutritional requirements do not change based on the milk’s price, unfortunately. So, while we must analyse the diet to ensure that the last dollars spent on feed is returning you at least a dollar in the vat, it is not sensible to sacrifice diet quality at the expense of profitable production.

Good nutritional practices are essential to get healthy, profitable cows that reproduce on time. Yes, there is a very direct link between good nutrition, the cow’s health and their reproductive performance. Many fertility issues in today’s cows are, in fact, due to nutritional imbalances, not just poor genetic choices or not-so-handsome bulls. Similarly, many of the health issues, especially those around the calving time, are also due to rations out of balance. The reality is that genetic potential has evolved faster than nutritional practices in today’s dairy farm, and that has derived in lower reproductive performance and less-healthy cows. So, paying more attention to the nutrition of these sympathetic quadruped beings can result in a cooler life around the farm. That easy!

The key is: “Balanced rations”. Balance that needs to be consistent and obviously cost-effective across the whole lactation, involving everything we offer the cow to eat every day. That is the biggest challenge in a dynamic system that is changing all the time.

Importantly, just because practicing nutrition on pasture based systems can be quite challenging, it means it is impossible – nothing further from the truth. There are lots of things that can be done to get the cows performing in a profitable way, from the nutritional point of view. You just need to be aware of what and when to apply them to get the best advantage.

Daniel Espinosa works as a ruminant nutritionist for Reid Stockfeeds. A PhD Ag Science graduate from La Trobe Uni with VET qualifications, Daniel now lives with his wife, Carolina and two children, Pedro and Silvanah, in Warragul, Gippsland.

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