Competitive Eating

When cows have to jockey for position at feeding time, their dry matter intake and hoof health can take a serious hit.

Competition at the family dining table was fierce between my brother and me when we were growing up. While there was no lack of food, there was definitely sorting for the good stuff and quickly cleaning up the first course so we could get to dessert quickly. Your cows can exhibit similar behaviour at the feed bunk.

Recent University of British Columbia studies looked at the results of competition on cow eating habits during transition-a crucial time for dairy cattle. They are more prone to infectious and metabolic diseases, their hooves are more susceptible to lesions and their dry matter intake can fluctuate, causing clinical or subclinical metritis when it drops.

Researchers wanted to know if competition for food changes the way cows approach and spend time at the feed bunk. The studies showed how competition can impact dry matter intake and hoof health. From their findings, we can also glean steps you can take to reduce competition and enhance your herd's performance. In one study, researchers divided first-calf heifers and older cows into groups. They used the Insentec feed management system that lets cows access feed stations continually. Each animal in one group of 34 cows had access to its own feed station. In the other group of 74 cows, two animals competed at the same station.

The cows were first fed a baseline diet during the dry period. Researchers measured feed intake for each cow as the animals got used to the feeding system. Management was monitored as each cow went through transition phases.

The researchers found competition impacted transition cow social behaviour. Cows that had to compete for space at the feeder were displaced by the other cow two to three times per day.

For first-calf heifers, competition did not affect feeder visit frequency, time at the feed bins, amount consumed during each visit and total daily feeding time for these cows. Older cows went to the feed bunk more often in a competitive environment. However, they had a lower dry matter intake and spent 28 per cent less time eating in the week before calving than cows in a non-competitive situation. By the second week after calving, competitive-environment cows had stabilized their feed intake but still made more trips to the feeder. The competitive environment also created a greater risk of lameness. These cows stood 2.8 hours longer per day and laid down less than cows in the non-competitive group. Cows that stand longer are more likely to develop lameness conditions such as claw horn lesions. During the period around calving, they can be especially vulnerable.

Another UBC study looked at whether the amount of space per cow at the feed bunk affects competition Researchers compared the traditional per cow allotment at the bunk of 0.64 metres (two feet) with 0.92 metres (three feet).

Increasing the amount of bunk space reduced the aggressive interactions 43 per cent. Daily feeding time also increased 4.6 per cent. When cows had less bunk space, they also stood 23 minutes longer.

Boss cows could not dominate the more timid cows as much when the animals could spread out more at feeding time. The subordinate animals were not pushed away from the bunk as much.

Looking at the same issues, another trial examined the sorting behaviour of cows in competitive versus noncompetitive environments. Researchers examined fresh and leftover feed to determine particle length. They also looked at whether cows had tried to sort out individual ingredients in the total mixed ration, which included 29 per cent grain concentrate mash. Cows in both the competitive and non-competitive groups were clearly sorting their feed-primarily trying to select out the concentrate. They left the long hay and silage particles behind.

Regardless of competition, sorting creates many challenges, including lack of diet consistency, too much starch and other factors leading to production and health challenges for the cow.

At the feed bunk, you can take concrete steps to reduce competition and sorting:

  • allow bunk space of almost one metre per cow for transition animals;
  • provide feed at all times so cows are not waiting or competing for it;
  • ensure the footing around the bunk promotes good hoof health;
  • reduce TMR sorting by mixing it properly, having proper fibre length and adding adequate moisture or sticking agents;
  • keep cow pen groups consistent to reduce social hierarchy fighting. Reducing competition and sorting can help keep all your cows healthy and productive. Unfortunately for me, my brother won the feeding competition at our family dinner table- he grew up more than two inches taller than I am.

Barry Potter is an agriculture development adviser and dairy calf and heifer management program lead with OMAFRA.

For more information, refer to these studies:

Competition at the feed bunk changes the feeding, standing, and social behavior of transition dairy cows, K. L. Proudfoot , D. M. Veira , D. M. Weary , and M. A. G. von Keyserlingk J. Dairy Sci. 92 :3116-3123.

Stocking Density and Feed Barrier Design Affect the Feeding and Social Behavior of Dairy Cattle, J. M. Huzzey,T. J. DeVries, P. Valois, and M. A. G. von Keyserlingk, J. Dairy Sci. 89:126-133.

The Effects of Feed Bunk Competition on the Feed Sorting Behavior of Close-Up Dry Cows, A. Hosseinkhani, T. J. DeVries, K. L. Proudfoot, R. Valizadeh, D. M. Veira, and M. A. G. von Keyserlingk, J. Dairy Sci. 91:1115-1121.

This article first appeared in the April 2012 Milk Producer magazine.

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Author: Barry Potter - Agriculture Development Adviser and Dairy Calf and Heifer Management Program Lead/OMAFRA
Creation Date: 01 April 2012
Last Reviewed: 01 April 2012