We ensure that our cows receive a well-formulated, palatable ration – but how often do we think about the feeding environment and whether the dining experience enhances or hinders feed intake and production efficiency?

For instance, research shows us herds that routinely feed for refusals and practice consistent feed push-up produce about 3 to 9 pounds per day more milk than herds that do not. Not many management factors elicit this magnitude in production response.

Let’s consider the key components of the feeding environment and whether current industry recommendations are optimal from the cow’s perspective.

Manage competition at the feedbunk

Competition at the feedbunk seems unavoidable, and the 60 minutes following delivery of fresh feed is usually when competition is greatest. But even when access to feed is virtually unlimited, cows interact in ways that give some an advantage over others.

Consequently, the management goal is not to eliminate competition, but rather to control it. USDA data tell us nearly 60 percent of U.S. dairy farms provide less than 24 inches of bunk space per cow, so the effect of bunk space on feeding behavior and cow response is critical.


Are 24 inches of bunk space sufficient from the cow’s perspective? A study addressed this question by providing subordinate cows with a choice: They could choose to eat a low-palatability feed alone or they could choose a high-palatability feed that came with a dominant cow located either 12, 18, 24 or 30 inches away.

When feeding space was highly restricted (i.e., 12 or 18 inches), most subordinate cows chose to eat the low-palatability feed alone. But even with 24 or 30 inches of feed space, about 40 percent of subordinate cows still chose to eat alone. This research implies some cows will settle for less- desirable feed to avoid competition even when bunk space exceeds the current industry standard.

Greater feeding frequency boosts efficiency

Greater feeding frequency helps to ensure feed availability over 24 hours. In a study that investigated herd-level management and milk production, Canadian researchers found a benefit of twice- over once-daily feeding with dry matter intake increasing 3 pounds per day while milk yield increased 4.4 pounds per day.

With twice-daily feeding of a total mixed ration (TMR), more feed was available throughout the day and there was less feed sorting. Other research has found that greater feeding frequency of the TMR improves rumen fermentation, enhances rumination and boosts eating time.

When should feed be pushed up?

Feed push-up strategy should ensure feed is within easy reach of the cow and is a function of the number of times per day and when the feed push-up occurs. A study conducted at University of Arizona evaluated the effect of feed push-up each half hour for the first two hours after feed delivery versus only once per hour.

In short, greater frequency of feed push-up during the two hours after feed delivery resulted in more milk and improved efficiency with no impact on stall resting time. This research highlights the importance of timing of the feed push-up. In particular, there may well be a benefit of focusing on the hours right after feed delivery.

Is feed available?

For competitive feeding situations, each 2 percent unit increase in feed refusals is associated with a 1.3 percent increase in sorting. Additionally, milk per dry matter intake decreases by 3 percent for each 1 percent increase in sorting.

Overfeeding cattle is rarely a problem on commercial farms. Instead, the most common question is: How long can the feedbunk be empty? The cow’s motivation to eat increases substantially after only three hours without feed.

In addition, when feed access time is restricted by 10 hours per day, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., feed intake is reduced by 3.5 pounds per day, coinciding with twice as many displacements at feeding. When this temporal feed restriction is combined with overcrowding (1:1 or 2:1 cows per feeding bin), there is a 25 percent increase in feeding rate during the first two hours after feed delivery (i.e., slug feeding).

The ideal dining experience

As new information is published, we need to continually reassess our feeding management recommendations. If we ask the cow for her opinion using well-designed studies and field observations, we will design optimal feeding environments. Recommended feeding management based on the latest research includes:

  • Management that enhances rest and rumination

  • Feed available on demand

  • Consistent feed quality and quantity along the length of the bunk

  • Bunk stocking density of less than or equal to 100 percent (greater than or equal to 24 inches per cow)

  • Feed push-up focused on two hours after feed delivery

  • About 3 percent feed refusal target

  • Empty bunk no more than three hours per day (ideally never)  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Fredric Ridenour.

Rick Grant
  • Rick Grant

  • William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute
  • Chazy, New York
  • Email Rick Grant