How do you handle move day? It’s not uncommon to have a big move day once a week. Dry cows move to pre-fresh; new dry cows move to far-off dry pens; post-fresh cows move to high groups. It’s a big merry-go-round.

Retired Organic Dairy Producer / Options Trader

If your pens are already full and you are calving steadily, these moves usually all happen on the same day or same time of week.

How do you account for their feed? Usually the person delivering the feed and the person sorting and moving the cows between pens are two different people. You would think that the communication wouldn’t be that hard, but no two weeks seem to go exactly the same. You will always have to juggle cows around to make your group sizes work to accommodate incoming fresh cows and move out this week’s dry cows, but how do you train your feeder to anticipate these moves?

In a perfect world, all cows would move right when the feed was delivered.

Pre-fresh group

Let’s start with pre-fresh. Pre-fresh is usually straight forward, if you time your move at the same time the feed is delivered. Moving new cows into a group as the feed is delivered avoids some of the social stress of the group change because they are distracted by the fresh feed. If you are calving every day, those fresh cows are moving out to your fresh groups and there is already space available to move cows from your far-off dry cow pens into pre-fresh. You can make a list of how many are moving and add that to the current pen count, then deliver the average feed intake multiplied by the total number of cows in the pen.


Far-off dry cow group

Adding new dry cows to far-off dry cow pens is a little more of a trick. For most dairies, dry cows are coming out of only a handful of milking pens. They are sorted, held until the end of milking and then run back through the parlor for dry treatment. The timing never seems to work out to add these cows to the dry cow pens as the feed is being delivered. In order to deliver the right amount of feed for the changing group size, it is fairly accurate to represent the group size as a percent of the day.

For example, if you are drying off 30 cows and they will move into the far-off dry cow pen four hours after feed was delivered, you have already lost 16 percent of the day. Figuring those dry cows will be fed at the same time tomorrow, the cows now have 20 hours to eat all of the feed dropped instead of 24. Sixteen percent of the 30 cows dried off is 4.8 cows. Your feeder should only be dropping enough feed for 25 additional cows in your dry cow pen and not 30. Tomorrow, with a full pen of cows for 24 hours, would be the appropriate time to feed for the entire pen count.

hours since last feeding

Fresh cow group

Chances are you will see similar results in your fresh cow pen. Moving all of the cows that are eating well out of your fresh cow group once per week will affect the group intake when you adjust the feed on the same day. A fresh cow pen that you add new post-fresh cows into every day and then move the best ones out to high groups once per week can have a fluctuating pen intake. It’s understandable to target 5 percent refusals for your fresh cows. If your feeder is not on board, and you don’t account for the time of day in your moves, this number can easily surpass 10-15 percent refusal on move day.

Mixed milk cow groups

If you are doing a decent job at tracking your dry matter intakes per group, you can pick up where mixed cows are at just from your weighbacks. If you are seeing two groups in a consecutive milking order and one group has an intake that is continually climbing, while the other group intake is trending downward, then those two pens have mixed cows. The group with the climbing intakes has the extra cows from the group with the intakes that are lagging behind. It sounds silly, but it is possible for this to go unnoticed for a few days in a row.

Once you do notice the trend, you will want to adjust your feed based on the time of day you anticipate these cows returning to their group. Just as the example in the dry cows, represent the number of cows to be moved as a percent of the day from when they are fed. If you have 20 extra cows and they will spend six hours in the pen from when they were fed, that is 25 percent of the day. Twenty-five percent of 20 cows is five cows. Your feeder should be dropping enough feed for five cows over the pen count where the extra cows are and for 15 cows in the pen where they are going back to.

Special circumstances

What about the not-so-obvious days, like loading out a pot of cull cows? If you were going to sort a load of 32 heavy cull cows at 8 p.m. to be ready for the truck at 4 a.m., that would be eight hours those cows would need feed in a separate pen while waiting for the truck. If your barn average intake is 52 pounds on a diet that is 48 percent dry matter, the math would look like this:

Eight hours is a third of the day, so is represented by 0.33.

  • 32 cows X 0.33= 10.66 cows
  • 52 pounds of dry matter/.48= 108.33 pounds per cow as fed
  • 10.66 cows X 108.33 pounds= 1,154.83 pounds

The feeder should drop 1,200 pounds for the group of cull cows to get them through the night until they are loaded out. This is about having the right amount without being wasteful.

How do you keep this all straight?

Timing is never perfect for pen moves and neither is the number of cows moving between pens. The easiest way to straighten out the communication between the feeders and the herdspeople is to set your move days to consistently happen on the same days. Put a card or a checklist in both the feed tractor and near the feed computer that lets everyone know when move days are and when to adjust the feed. If you are feeding early in the morning, you may need to adjust the night before.

As dairies grow in size, these numbers become increasingly important. Mixing cows, planning pen moves and even how you sort and load for the cull cow truck become part of your everyday system. With full or even overcrowded barns, leaving the right amount of feed in the right pens for the right amount of time becomes critically important to performance. For anticipating move days, it’s not magic; it’s just math.  end mark

For more on developing systems for your dairy, and other powerful techniques for herd managers, visit

Jim VanDerlinde
  • Jim VanDerlinde

  • Dairy Producer, Consultant
  • Hillview Dairy
  • Lewisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Email Jim VanDerlinde

PHOTO: Illustration by Kevin Brown.