Improve your ration by listening to your cows

Rough hair behind the shoulders, nasal discharge and irregular cow pats – just three symptoms which could mean your herd’s ration is not being used effectively, Aly Balsom reports

Interpreting cow behaviour to improve system set-up is no new concept, but a new approach could take the idea one step further – allowing the cow to specifically tell you how well the ration is working.

Following success on the continent, a new pocket-sized card system has been translated and made available to UK farmers, allowing producers to relate clinical signs to nutritional problems.

Speaking at a recent farm walk at Eastbrook Farm, Swindon, vet Edward De Beukelaer explained how imperfect rumen digestion would be displayed through specific cow signs.

He explained how a French vet had noticed when rumen pH dropped a cow would lick behind her shoulder – when more straw was introduced into the ration, the symptom disappeared. By looking at other signs and how they related to energy, protein and fibre levels in the feed, the Obsalim card system was developed and has been successfully used by more than 2,000 French farmers for the last 10 years.

“The system creates a platform to question how the ration is performing,” said Mr De Beukelaer. “The cards are designed to point you towards a problem, rather than give the solution. A decision can then be made based on economics and individual farm aims.”

What do the cards look like?

The pack of playing card sized cards is split into different colours which correspond to the different areas affected. For example, nose, skin or reproduction. Each card then includes:

• The name and description of the problem
• A photograph of the problem
• What might cause the symptom
• Other possible causes, excluding nutrition
• Delay factor – how long the symptom takes to appear or disappear
• The relation the symptom has to feeding – this is split down into seven key areas detailing energy, protein, fibre and rumen stability which are quantified as either 0, 1, 2, -1 and -2

How do you use them?

The first thing is to establish whether there is a feeding problem in your herd. If you are witnessing one of the following, there is scope to change the ration, says Mr De Beukelaer:

• Dirt on udder and bellies
• Dirt on the back of quarters or hind legs
• Variation in cow pats from day-to-day
• Swirls behind shoulders and licking here
• Variation in body condition

After identifying one of the above problems, producers can then use the cards to identify three common symptoms being expressed by 50% or more of the herd:

• These three symptoms should be across three different areas (for example, not just on the hair)
• The number figures from each of the seven key nutritional areas (energy and protein etc) should then be added up across the three cards
• The total that is the furthest away from zero (negative or positive) is the limiting factor in terms of nutrition
• Discussions should then be carried out with the vet or nutritionist to help decide how to correct the ration

“With this system it’s important to remember not to use your brain – look at the cows and go by what they’re saying. It’s also crucial to use the signs shown by most of the cows.” stressed Mr De Beukelaer.

“This is a dynamic tool – it does not replace feed calculations, but it’s a bit like ‘cow whispers’. Farmers should keep the cards in their pocket and familiarise themselves with what to look out for.”

Case Study: Eastbrook Farm, Swindon

Using the Obsalim card system at Eastbrook Farm during the farm walk identified a problem with energy usage in the ration.

Initial observations of the high yielding group of Holstein Friesians at grass identified dirt on the legs and belly on more than 50% of the group, indicating problems with the ration.

Further use of the cards to establish three common behaviours found the following symptoms:

1) Drawling from the nose: Too much carbohydrates, possible acidosis
2) Loose cow pats: Too much carbohydrates or soluble protein
3) Spinal chill/hair standing on end: Linked to poor energy conversion

Adding up the corresponding nutritional figures for each symptom showed a huge amount of energy was being wasted in the ration. Mr De Beukelaer said in response, ration energy levels could be reduced, or more structural fibre could be introduced.

“The response will vary depending on the farm’s aims. But because they are not pushing for yields here, it may be worth dropping the energy in the diet.”

• The cards can be purchased for £25. A book and computer software will also become available. For more information visit or contact Edward De Beukelaer at: