Advice on dealing with dairy feed refusals

Managing feed refusals is a careful balancing act between providing enough feed to maximise intakes and minimising waste at the trough.

Independent nutritionist Mark Price of Dairy Diagnosis gives advice on how to minimise costly feed waste.

How much waste is too much?

The less the better, but ideally you want to be targeting less than 5%. I would advise low refusals is better than aiming for zero refusals – that way, you will maximise intakes, as there will always be something to eat.

It also accounts for the inevitable event of some poor-quality feed getting into the mix. 

Based on a total mixed ration (TMR) costing £70/t, if you can reduce feed refusals from 5% to 2%, with no loss of milk, this would save around £25 per 200 cows each day. Over 365 days this equates to £9,125 (see box below).

Costings explained

  • Full TMR ration typically costs £70/t
  • TMR herd typically eats 55-60kg fresh weight a cow
  • This equates to 6t for every 100 cows
  • 6 x £70/t = £420
  • Total feed costs £420 for 100 cows a day
  • A 3% saving = £12.60
  • Therefore, for 200 cows, that’s a £25.20/day saving based on a 60kg intake

Should you feed less if you have lots left over?

You should never starve cows to make them eat.

If there is a lot left over, never feed them less to make them clear the trough. Otherwise, cows will eat the fresh feed and leave the older stuff and more feed will accumulate in the trough, exacerbating waste.

The golden rule of bunk management is to clean out stale feed.

What should you do with refusals?

Re-mixing refusals is a definite no.

They are refusals for a reason. Usually because it is the poorest quality or poorest palatability. Never put it back in the mixer wagon for the cows because it can cause the whole mix to heat up.

You want to maximise the intakes of dry cows, so don’t feed it to this group either.  

It is commonplace for farmers to feed it to in-calf heifers or bulling heifers. But this should be done with caution.

It can be used in part, but don’t feed it in abundance because they will get too fat. I believe these animals can be fed better without using refusals by tailoring their diet appropriately.

It can work really well if you have bull beef animals on the farm, but not everyone does and in this instance you have to throw it away.  

Never re-feed refusals if they are:

  • Hot
  • Mouldy
  • If you only clear out the trough once or twice a week, because it will be very unpalatable. You must reuse refusals while they are still relatively fresh.

See also: Advice on reducing silage losses 

Troubleshooting refusals: What could be the problem and how to avoid it?

  • Trough design: Can the cow lick the bottom of the trough clean? Or does a rough surface mean feed is being left behind, which creates a fousty, rotten smell that could put cows off eating? Look at using resin-coatings to maintain good bunk hygiene.
  • Trough dimensions: Do all cows have adequate access? There should be 65cm of feed space an animal with no brisket or neck restrictions preventing them from reaching feed.
  • Calculate demand: Are you overfeeding animals? Work out exact requirements.
  • Consistency: Cows love consistency. Ensure feed is being fed at the same time each day. Analyse if there are differences between operators and consider if staff need a refresher.
  • Ration mixing: Under-processed rations can lead to sorting and increased feed waste. Mixing times will depend on the ingredients and feeder wagon used, however, as a general rule of thumb forages should not be longer than 5cm. Use the Penn State Particle Separator test to diagnose issues with particle size.
  • Dry matter variability: Wet forages can lead to underfeeding. Sometimes, farmers feed much more to compensate, which can lead to wastage. To manage this: try to make consistent silage; layer cuts; don’t cut silage and leave it in a pile to get wet the night before if you know it’s going to rain; don’t roll the sheet back too far to avoid the pit face getting too wet; be aware of it and feed enough to make up for it being wetter.
  • Avoid making poor-quality silage: Cows will reject mouldy and poor-quality forage so ensure you are reducing losses from field to feed out by paying close attention when cutting and ensiling forage.

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