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Factors influencing intake and digestibility


Find out the key 6 factors that influence your cows intake and digestibility by reading our article.

1. Level of feeding

Firstly, the level of feeding is crucial in maintaining good and consistent intakes. If we overfeed then there is either a risk of stale feed contaminating the next mix or wasting too much feed but if we underfeed then we will not maximise intakes, as feed will not be ad lib.

  • Overfeeding = 13-15% residual feed in trough before next feed-out.
  • Underfeeding = 3-5% residual feed is effectively empty.
  • Ideal = 5-10% residual feed in trough before next feed-out, with a min of 70cm trough space/cow.

2. Feed processing 

Secondly the processing of feed is important to ensure the physicality and stability of the mix at the feed fence. If a robotic mix is over processed then it can breakdown the structure too much and impact the physical nature and effective fibre, which in turn puts pressure on rumen health. 

Similarly if under processed and the mix becomes too open, then the cows can sort and this can lead to inconsistent digestibility of the mix at best or acidosis at worst, as they tend to pick out the concentrates first and leave the lower nutrient fibre to last. 

The aim with the feed processing of the mix is to aim for a uniform particle length (approximately 2cm) and consider the addition of water if the ration is above 42% dry matter, both improve digestibility.

Afbeelding: Brewster - Christina Silage

3. Feeding frequency

Feeding frequency can influence a stable rumen acidity. By feeding 4, 5 or 6 times a day, can improve rumen pH and stabilise or increase the digestion, particularly the digestibility of the fibre and 30% of the mix dry matter which should still be available at 11pm to be eaten through the night. 

In contrast feeding only twice or once a day can result in rumen pH fluctuations of between 5.1 to 7.0, which decreases the digestibility of the mix.

  • A stable rumen pH increases the digestibility of fibre.
  • Increases microbial activity
  • Decreases excessive ammonia production
  • More efficient feed utilisation

4. Environmental factors

Environmental factors including heat, humidity, airflow, cow flow, rain and even noise can influence instake and digestibility for robotic milking cows. The consequences of these factors may cause a stress response, demotivate cows to eat, lower passage rates and delay entry into small intestines.

Heat and humidity stress will reduce appetite and temperatures above 21°C can be a trigger point for a cow to suffer heat stress.

Has this stress stopped her from lying down as much as she should? Cows lying down ruminate more efficiently and they show +30% more blood flow through the udder. Cows need to lay down for 12-14 hours/day and for every additional hour over 9 hours can lead to an increase of 1 litre of milk.

Cows lying

5. Animal Factors

It's important to also consider the age, stage of pregnancy and level of exercise your cows are at. For example the rumen capacity of a pregnant animal may be reduced by 15-20% and her liquid intake capacity by 10-12%. The age of the cow will also have an influence on her dry matter intake – we are familiar with the idea of first lactations heifers having an intake of roughly 85% that of older cows, but should we consider second calvers differently as well to third lactation cows and above.

Additionally stress levels can have a big effect. How is her breathing? 30 times/minute is normal, however an increased rate of between 58/60 times/minute is a sign of stress or pain.

6. Diseases

Our final factor is disease for example diarrhoea, systemic mastitis, ketosis and milk fever. These can effect your dairy cows greatly and in severe cases dry matter intake could be reduced as much as 14kg. These factors are associated with a high reduction in feed intake and milk production.  

A number of these diseases are strongly influenced by the dry cow management, for example milk fever can result in a reduction in dry matter intake, in the resultant lactation of 1kg and a milk loss of up to 2kg. Dry cow management is a whole topic in itself for maximising the performance of a robotic dairy herd, which we will capture in further technical notes.

For more information

For more information on increasing intakes and digestibility, improving your robotic milking performance or profitability please speak to your local ForFarmers Account Manager or use the link below:


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