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Zero equals hero when reducing feed refusals

If you were going on a cross-country road trip and wanted to minimize stops, you could try to go as far as you could on a tank of gas and only stop to refuel once you were on empty. If you timed it just right, you could get to your destination sooner by maximizing efficiency with your fill-ups.

However, for this to work, you’d have to know what you were doing. Being off by a small margin could result in running out of gas on the side of the road, causing delays beyond what you would have experienced from filling up more frequently.

With that analogy in mind, let’s consider feeding for zero refusals. This means an empty feed bunk—the cows are out of feed. This can be terrific if you achieve complete ration disappearance without restricting dry matter intake. Feeding for zero refusals results in minimal feed waste and can maximize income over feed cost. Feeding efficiency is important to overall profitability. Getting the most milk from each pound of ration is also valuable.

However, as in the illustration above, when you run something this close to the edge, getting it wrong can be disastrous. If feeding for zero refusals results in even 1 pound of marginal milk lost, you won’t save much—or anything—from this practice.

Feeding for zero refusals isn’t for everyone. If you have an operation that finds good salvage value in feeding refuses to heifers, if you’re feeding a post-fresh group that has cows entering and leaving daily, or if you aren’t able to have extremely precise feed management, your best bet is probably to stick with the typical goal of 2% to 5% refusal.

“Feeding for zero refusals results in minimal feed waste and can maximize income over feed cost.”

If you are going to try feeding for zero refusals, there are a few important considerations:

Control forage moisture variation. Variations in dry matter of forages, and subsequently the total mixed ration, are easily the largest factor contributing to differences between expected feed intake and actual feed intake. You’ll need to check moisture at least two to three times per week; many zero-refusal programs check moisture daily. There is some variation in testing, so use rolling averages of the moisture tests rather than making dramatic changes daily. If numbers vary widely, determine why and monitor the situation closely so you can take timely corrective action.

If feeding silage, try using a silage defacer. This helps ensure that silage is taken from the entire face of the silo. A bunker silo can have significant moisture variation from one side to the next, so a silage defacer also does a good job of premixing the silage. You can reduce the variation by mixing the forages with the loader bucket after they’ve been taken off the face and piled on the bunker floor.

Account for all the cows in the pen. The feeder needs to know exactly how many cows are in the pen. You need to be able to communicate cattle movements from pen to pen. If cows regularly end up in the wrong pen, it is very unlikely that they’ll have the proper amount of feed.

Be consistent with feed delivery and push-ups. By consistent, I mean, “exactly the same time every day” rather than “meh, sometime in the morning when I get to it.” Cows like consistency. Slight variations in the time of feed delivery, especially if you’re feeding for zero refusals, can result in a loss of milk.

Feed redistribution is important. Frequent feed push-ups reduce the amount of time cows do not have access to feed and the variability in feed refusals. You’ll also need to be good at redistributing the feed. The ration remaining in the feedline should be spread as evenly as possible along the entire length.

Don’t overcrowd cows. Overcrowding makes the penalty for running out of feed more severe. Less-dominant cows will be most affected because they won’t be able to eat at the same time as the dominant cows. If you have overcrowding and empty bunks, you run the risk of much higher levels of subacute rumen acidosis.

Determine what your current refusal rate is before trying to get to zero refusals. If you’re at 5% refusals now, consider going to 2.5% refusals and evaluate what happens. The objective is to learn what needs to be done to avoid empty feed bunks prior to achieving zero refusals.

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