Feeding is the most important factor when dealing with dairy cows. In most cases it distinguishes the successful farmers from the unsuccessful ones.
With feeding, there is not any one Golden formula that guarantees success. However, there are guidelines/rules of thumb that when followed will more often than not produce good results. It is however important for farmers to understand that they have to choose a formula that works both for the dairy cows and them. In that, the cows improve milk production and at the same time not strain the farmer. Some of the best animal feeds are expensive and this at times produces losses even with good milk production. Some farms have resorted to planting their own feeds and this has greatly driven down the costs.
It is important to first understand how cows work/their digestive system so as to understand how to feed them, what they require and why they require it.
Cows require good feeds for several reasons
To maintain its body
If pregnant, growth of calf
The general rule is that cows feed should contain adequate amounts of Energy Protein and Minerals. Now it is up to the farmer to determine the best sources for the above nutrients and in the right ratios. These nutrients are available to cows in different forms ie roughage/forage, and concentrates.
These make up the bulk of a cows feed. They include fresh grass, Napier grass, hay etc. Forages go a long way in determining the productivity of a cow. They mostly provide energy and some minerals to the cow.
Bulk forages can either be fresh, dry or preserved (silage). Forages such as Napier grass should be chopped into smaller pieces (approx. 3cm) to make it easier to mix with other feeds. Forages should compose of 70%-80% of the dry matter content of a cows ration.
The quality of forages affect milk production of a cow. Fresh grass for example has fewer nutrients as compared to napiar grass or hay of the same quantity. This is because grass has a lot of water rather than nutrients. Wheat straw also has few nutrients. It actually falls under low quality forages and many farmers are guilty of feeding wheat straws alone to cows. However this does not mean that low quality forages cannot be used. They can be fed to the cows then supplemented with feeds of higher nutrient value called ‘supplementary forages’
These can be used to either supplement for low quality forages or replace concentrates. Concentrates are high nutrient feeds e.g Dairy meal.
Examples are legume crops such as lucern and desmodium and calliandra. These are mostly of medium and high quality depending on the protein and energy levels in it. It is recommended that supplementary forages should not make up more than 25%-30% of the ration. This is because some of them cause bloat and other related problems .For example lucern is good for dairy cattle but too much of it causes bloat. The risk can be reduced by wilting fresh lucern for a few hours before feeding.
These are feeds of high nutrient value fed to cows and have more nutrients than forages. Examples are commercial dairy meal, brewers’ waste, maize germ meal, wheat bran, wheat pollard, rice bran, maize bran molasses fish meal etc.
Concentrates should be fed depending on the quality of forages fed and milk production. High producing cows require more nutrients hence more concentrates while low producers require less. This also helps to ensure farmers make profits as high producing cows will return the investment on the concentrates fed to them.
Concentrates can be fed in many ways but the most common one is to give cows 1kg of dairy meal for every 2litres of milk above 5litres. This means that if your cow is producing 7litres a day, then you feed it 1kg of dairy meal and so on.
The most important thing when feeding cows is having a balanced diet. So knowing the quality of feeds you give to your cows is important as you can supplement for the missing nutrients.
Now it is up to you as the farmer to figure out which feed is available to you and at what price to come up with a ration. An example is Napier grass(bulk forage), desmodium(supplementary forage), dairy meal(concentrate) and mineral licks.
Remember to consider feed prices. After all, they will determine your profitability.
Below is a table with various feeds and their quality.
I would however advice farmers to seek professional advice to work out a proper feeding program.
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Farmers can use the table above to choose the best feed for their dairy cattle and ways to supplement them in case they use low quality forages..