One way to maximize dry matter intake

By Dan Vosberg, South Wayne, Wisconsin — One of the biggest mistakes many beginning graziers make is to leave their cows a little hungry. The cows aren’t accustomed to grazing, and the pastures are usually not up to speed. I’ve also seen some cases where the stored or purchased feed is of poor quality. This leaves the cows with no incentive to fill up – a critical mistake when it comes to milk cows. At the very least you’ll sacrifice some production. If the problem is more severe, cow health, reproduction, milk solids, and cow longevity can suffer. With tight margins, filling your cows up can make the difference between staying in business, or going out.

But what about experienced graziers? Are we really getting the job done when it comes to filling up our cows? Five years ago, I thought we were doing an adequate job of this on our farm. Yes, I knew that if we moved the wire, the cows would start eating again. But how many times does a person want to move a wire in a day?

In 1999 we decided to try supplementing the pastures with some corn silage. Since our pasture watering system was becoming a bigger problem with our increased herd size and steep hills, we decided to bring the cows in at midday for water and corn silage. It made sense to give them the silage at a time of day when they’re less likely to graze. I also feel that you sacrifice milk production if your cows go without water for eight hours or more in the middle of a summer day.

The results were enlightening. No matter how big the paddock or how good the morning pasture, the cows would always eat the corn silage. That was no big surprise, considering that cows really like corn silage. But it was interesting to see that they would almost always eat the silage before going to the water tanks. It got even more interesting when I put them out on a different paddock for the afternoon after their mid-day meal. Cows that had been standing around in the yard, looking full as a tick, would put their heads down and start grazing as soon as they hit the new grass. At milking time they wouldn’t always be as anxious to charge into the parlor, but once inside they’d usually clean up their grain.

Soon we started noticing better performance from the cows in the form of higher production, better conception rates and better cow condition. Before this move, our herd of Jerseys and Jersey crosses would peak at around 54 lbs. of daily milk, with about 11,500 lbs. of milk shipped per lactation. During the first June with the mid-day feed and water we peaked at 65 lbs., or 11 lbs. more. The milk-shipped average for the season increased 2,000 lbs. per cow.

We’ve held that 13,500 lbs. shipped per cow every year since. I remember being worried that the increase in production would have an adverse affect on breeding. Instead we’ve gotten better, with last year coming in around a 67% first service conception rate. It also affected our bottom line – we were making more money.

We learned a few lessons from this. First was the importance of filling up cows. It’s better to err on the side of spending more for feed than to let the cows go hungry, or get sub-par feed. Give them something they really like, provide more meals, and they’ll stuff themselves like we do at Thanksgiving.

The second thing we learned was not to assume cows are full. You’ve got to test them by giving them something different, or another meal. You really can’t tell by looking at them whether they’ll refuse to eat anymore.

The third thing we’ve learned is to try to provide enough energy to the cow to keep her from “milking it all off.” However, there is a limit to how much non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) you can feed a cow. This is where things can get a little tricky. Being high in protein and energy, but low in fiber, pasture can be a two-edged “sward.” With corn silage and cottonseed being both high in energy and fiber, we’ve been able to push the envelope a little more, getting our NSC as high as 40% without upsetting the cows. This pushes our NELs as high as 79-80 Mcals/cwt. After the cows are bred we bring the NSC down to 34-36 % by feeding a higher percentage of pasture in the ration. At this point we try to save some money on our feed bill because the cows are pregnant, and are past their peaks. The goal is to maintain or start increasing body condition going into the winter.

The fourth thing we learned is that water on pastures is overrated. I’m not saying that the cows don’t need water. If your goal is to maximize dry matter intakes, you don’t want something as cheap as water to be the limiting factor. But, I think the idea that a cow has to be able to get a drink between mouthfuls of grass is overrated.

Probably the most important thing we’re learning is that grazing cows is a balancing act between what the cows need to perform well (not just milk production), what the pastures need to perform well, and what we want as far as profit and workload. There are some disadvantages to what we do. The obvious one is the extra labor. It takes one person almost an hour to bring the cows in for water, silage and cottonseed at midday. This can be inconvenient when we’re haying, or when everyone wants to leave for the day. When we do go away, we put the cows close to the yard and give them access all day, or we feed them the silage right before milking.

Still, at times it’s a real pain, and it’s always one more job to do. Although I feel we’ve increased our dry matter intakes, much of that is not coming from pasture. This is a bigger cost and also causes us to have to make more first-crop hay. Our cows also get a little spoiled with this system. When we go to get them for silage they’re usually waiting at the gate. It also seems they’re pickier than other graziers’ cows. I was amazed to watch one of Art Thicke’s cows eat ragweed (see letter, page 12). Does that mean Art’s cows are starving? Not at all. His cows have good condition, and he’s making money. Where I sometimes have to bring in a clean-up group of heifers to get the residual height where I want, Art’s cows clean the paddock right up. His cows are used to his system, which is simpler and less work.

My cows give more milk. From an economic standpoint, the extra labor and cost appears to be justified: 150 cows milking 2,000 more pounds per year at $15/cwt. (a realistic price for our high-solids milk) generates $45,000 more milk income compared to our previous, lower production average. We started feeding cottonseed and a pelleted mineral at the same time, so I can’t say for sure that the mid-day feeding and watering schedule itself accounted for all of the extra milk. The overall increase in dry matter and water intakes certainly had a major effect. However, I do know that the cows drop 3-5 lbs. of milk when we water and feed them silage at milking time, rather than mid-day. Three pounds from 150 cows over the 160 days we feed at mid-day works out to 72,000 lbs. of milk. At $15 per cwt., that comes to $10,800, which wouldn’t be a bad reward for the labor involved if this kind of effect lasted over an entire season. And, with our cow health and breeding success, we can increase cow numbers by 15% each per year while maintaining a closed herd, and calving everyone in 75 days or less.

The results aren’t quite as good from a lifestyle standpoint. We’re looking for ways to cut back on our workload. What would be the impact over a total lactation if we fed them at a different time of day? We may play around with that a little this year.

Making sure our cows are filled up every day has paid off for us. But, just like everything else, our methods may not be for everyone. If I were a beginning grazier with little money and lots of energy, I would seriously consider doing what we do.

Dan Vosberg and his wife, Ruth, milk cows near South Wayne, Wisconsin.