When you consider the ration you feed your cows and the feed additives and nutritional components you invest in, do you also prioritize the conditions under which this feed is consumed? If you are not already managing the cow environment and the delivery and management of feed, you may be missing out on key gains in health, production and efficiency.

Ohirko emma
Editor / Progressive Dairy

“It's not only what cows eat, but it's also how they eat,” explained Dr. Trevor DeVries during his recent webinar, “Understanding dairy cow feeding behavior to optimize nutritional management,” presented in association with Balchem Animal Nutrition and Health.

“To modify [dairy cow feeding behaviour] we do need to think about what feeds we provide, how we manage that feed and how that feed is managed at the bunk and the environment of a cow,” he continued.

Dry matter intake

To coordinate feed and nutrition management, it is helpful to understand how the feeding behaviour of dairy cows can impact things like dry matter intake (DMI) and production. For example, DeVries noted, feeding behaviour is inherently linked to DMI. Thus, to modify a cow’s level of DMI, changes in cow feeding behaviour must be influenced.

The quantity of nutrients cows consume is a limiting factor in milk production, therefore the total volume of milk produced by a cow is tied to the total amount of feed the cow can consume along with the amount of nutrients cows convert into milk. “If we want that cow to alter her intake level or consume more feed, that has to be done through some kind of change in feeding behaviour, and that's really because the intake level of a cow is a mathematical function of her feeding behaviour … for a cow to consume more feed, she either needs to spend more time eating, eat faster, or some combination of those two things,” DeVries said.


To achieve this, DeVries, a professor at the University of Guelph and a Canada research chair in dairy cattle behaviour and welfare, recommended maximizing or providing the conditions to allow a cow to maximize the amount of time spent at the feedbunk. If cows are unable to spend at least four to five hours per day at the feedbunk, it could limit the amount of feed they are able to consume each day.

In terms of rumen health and function, cow feeding behaviours can directly influence how cows digest feed. “If we key in on our high-intake, high-production cows, what we see is that those cows that are consuming a lot of feed are also needing to spend a significant period of their day ruminating. If anything limits that rumination time, that could potentially have a negative trickle-down effect in terms of how much those cows are then able to consume. This may negatively impact the feeding behaviour of those cows,” DeVries explained.


Rumination is essential to maintaining healthy rumen function, and rumination behaviour is linked to the ingestion behaviour of cows. With this in mind, there is the potential for the overall level of DMI to increase with optimized rumen function. The more quickly cows can process the feed they consume, the sooner they can return to eating. To ensure this occurs, allow cows sufficient rest time to give them the opportunity to ruminate.

Cow diets and diet composition should be formulated to encourage consumption and good eating behaviour by providing small, frequent meals that are difficult to sort and that stimulate rumination.

“First and foremost, it comes back to proper forage management. Various aspects of forage management are key in terms of encouraging that good eating behaviour,” DeVries said. One challenge this can present is in areas where very-low-forage diets are more prevalent, as cows fed these diets eat much faster. Where this scenario exists, proper nutritional management becomes even more important.

Feeding behaviour management

The primary factor to consider when managing dairy cows at the feedbunk as a way to influence feeding behaviour is cows’ motivation to eat from the feedbunk. This motivation should be driven internally by the cows' hunger, something DeVries argued should be primarily influenced by the quality of the feed the cows consume.

Another factor to consider is feed delivery. Feed delivery drives cows to the feedbunk, and as a result, variations in delivery frequency alter the feeding behaviour of cows. “In one example where we fed cows more often, we went from once to twice to even four [delivery] times a day; we saw cows spending more time at the bunk, eating more meals per day, slowing down the rate of intake and at the same time, exhibiting less feed sorting behaviour, whereby those cows actually consumed a more consistent diet,” DeVries noted. Conversely, a negative impact may be observed in the rumen environment when cows are subjected to an empty feedbunk, causing them to consume a larger meal at a faster speed once the feed is delivered.

Feed sorting

Discouraging sorting behaviour is particularly important to milk component production. “The minute the cow starts sorting feed – even though we provide her a TMR [total mixed ration] that's designed to be homogenous and prevent that kind of behaviour from occurring – the minute the cow starts doing that, she ends up consuming a diet that's variable in composition relative to what we expect,” DeVries explained. He added, “There's a one percentage point spread in milkfat that we can explain by variability in sorting behaviours of cows, and that's very significant. We see a very similar relationship with milk protein as well.”

“We also know that the minute the cows sort, the balance of nutrients that they're consuming gets thrown off, and that's why we are likely to see this association with milk protein … it's going to be highly related to not only the total volume of microbial protein production, but also the balance of amino acids that those cows are actually consuming and absorbing.”

In conclusion, DeVries noted, “How cows eat is just as important as the nutritional composition of feed when ensuring cow health, efficiency and productivity.”