The method of feeding concentrates will depend on the size of the farm, level of production, level of concentrate fed, labor, and facilities.
More feedings of grain per day can increase milk and milkfat production.
Feeding economics is improved when grain is fed accurately according to milk production.
Computerized concentrate feeders feed cows as individuals, reduce the number of cow groups needed on the farm, and save labor.
Concentrates are usually fed through a Total Mixed Ration (TMR), with a scoop in a tie-stall barn, through manual feeders in the milking parlor, or using computerized feeders. One system is not necessarily best for all producers. The system of choice will depend on the size of the farm, the level of production, the level of grain fed, labor availability, and existing facilities.
Goals of Any Feeding System
Cows respond positively in milk and milkfat production when grain is portioned into more meals of smaller size throughout the day. The rumen microbes benefit from a uniform, constant supply of nutrients throughout the day. Also, the rumen microbes, especially the fiber digesters, grow better when rumen pH is above 5.8. Too much fermentable grain supplied at one time results in rumen acidosis. Swings in rumen pH from 5.3 to 6.7 have been seen when concentrates were fed only twice per day. In one study with cows fed either in the parlor or outside of the parlor via a computerized feeder, cows fed outside made 6% more milk. Grain feedings were equal.
The higher the level of concentrate feeding, the more apt cows will be to respond to more frequent feedings. Also, benefits to more frequent feeding would be higher in the case of feeding more digestible grains, such as wheat, barley, or processed corn. The TMR and computerized feeders have made it easier for farmers to spread out grain feedings throughout the day.
Feeding cows as individuals helps to increase herd productivity as well as improve feeding economics. When cows are all fed the same, as with a one-group TMR, the cows in early lactation who are high producers, do not get enough grain. This compromises milk production and reproduction. Often, cows become thin. But, with a one-group TMR, cows in late lactation who are low producers, get too much grain. This is not economical and if cows put on excessive body condition in late lactation, they are more apt to having calving problems and get ketosis at the beginning of their next lactation.
The more feeding groups on the farm, the more accurate feeding can be. Thus, individually feeding cows with a scoop in a tie-stall barn, with a parlor feeder, or with a computerized feeder is more accurate than feeding a TMR to a group of cows. On farms using a TMR, most nutritionists prefer to have at least a far-off dry group, a prefresh group, a fresh group, a high group, and a low group. It is often helpful to also have a heifer group (at least for heifers up to 150 DIM) and a medium group. Large dairies can often manage more groups of cows, making the TMR system accurate for their situation. With decreasing dairy size, it is difficult to have many production groups and feed separate TMR’s to each. Some producers feed a TMR and then topdress grain with a scoop, parlor feeder, or computerized feeder. This strategy keeps the advantages of a TMR yet has the benefits of feeding individually.
Moving Stress, Social Problems, and Ration Changes
Cows often respond negatively when they are moved from one group to another. They must adapt socially each time they are moved. Also, if the new ration is very different from the old ration, cows often don’t adapt quickly. The result of these nutrition and social changes is a reduction in milk production. Unfortunately, this drop in production is usually in mid- to late-lactation so it is difficult to bring milk production back up. Feeding cows as individuals either by the scoop in a tie-stall barn, in the milking parlor, or via a computerized feeder can help producers avoid frequent group changes.
Computerized Concentrate Feeders
With computerized concentrate feeders, cows wear an identification tag and when they approach the computer, the tag signals the computer who the cow is. Generally, computerized feeders are set up to feed cows at four- to six-hour intervals, depending on how the producer sets them up. The producer inputs the amount of grain to be fed to each cow within a 24-hour period. If the cow is allowed grain at the time of her approach, grain will be dispensed. If not, she gets no grain at that time and must wait and return to the feeder when she is allowed to get grain again. Usually cows eat the grain at about the same rate as it is dispensed. So there is little waste and little stealing of grain by other cows.
It is important to check and maintain computerized concentrate feeders. If a cow’s transponder stops working or gets lost, she won’t get any grain. Also, the feeder can get clogged and not be able to dispense grain. It is also important to keep the computerized concentrate feeder calibrated. Commercial grains can vary in density. This will change the pounds (amount) of grain actually dispensed in auger systems. Finally, it is important to update grain allotted for individual cows on a timely basis.
Computerized concentrate feeders have many advantages. They feed cows as individuals, increasing milk production in early lactation and saving money in late lactation. They reduce the amount of groups of cows needed on the farm. When more meals of grain can be fed in a day, rumen function, milkfat production, and milk production are all enhanced. Finally, computerized concentrate feeders usually will print a daily alarm list so that the dairy producer can easily see if cows have consumed all of their daily allotted grain. This helps the dairy producer to identify and treat sick cows quickly.
Some farms will benefit more from a computerized concentrate feeder than others. Large farms with many TMR feeding groups will probably gain little from the installation of a computerized concentrate feeder. Small farms that have the labor and ability to feed many times per day will not reap as much benefit from a computerized concentrate feeder. Those who are currently feeding grain twice per day, who want to feed larger amounts of grain, who are wasting a lot of grain, or who have a limited labor supply will benefit the most from a computerized concentrate feeder.
French, N. and J.J. Kennelly. 1985. Effects of feeding frequency on rumen function, plasma insulin, milk yield, and milk composition. 64th Annu. Feeders Day Rep., Univ. Alberta, Edmonton, Can.
Grant, R. and G.R. Bodman. 1995. Guidelines for Using Computerized Concentrate Feeders for Dairy Herds. University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
Rees, P. and P. Rowlinson. 1985. The effect of a fully-controlled out-of-parlour concentrate dispenser on the production of British Freisian dairy cows. Anim. Prod. 41:43.
Robinson, P.H. 1989. Dynamic aspects of feeding management in dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 72:1197.
Guidelines for Using Computerized Concentrate Feeders for Dairy Herds
Rick Grant and G.R. Bodman, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Individually Feeding Dairy Cows in the Milking Parlor
J.A. Pennington, University of Arkansas
Computerized Concentrate Feeders for Dairy Cows
D.E. Pritchard, M.L. Eastridge, and J.E. Winkler, Ohio State University
J.G. Linn et al.