Why are you feeding meal to the cows this spring?

At Grasslands, we have been incredibly fortunate recently to work with Andre Van Barneveld, a Dairy Consultant at Graise Ltd. This pasture based dairy farming consultancy advises farmers on how to boost their profitability whilst also improving their overall lifestyle. As part of his role, Andre has provided Grasslands with the following advice regarding spring meal feeding, and has graciously allowed us to share it with you all. Thank you Andre! Read his thoughts below.


Forget for a minute about your neighbour, your discussion group and thoughts of “we have always done it this way”. I want to know if you have considered why it is you are feeding meal and how you have come to the decision on what quantity to feed.

Feeding meal doesn’t equate to more KgMS/cow/day                                           

I have been with farmers feeding rates of zero, to others feeding 8Kg/cow/day and, amazingly enough, the herd being fed zero is producing more KgMS/cow/day than the one feeding 8Kg/cow/day. The farm feeding the higher rate of meal also has a higher pasture cover than the one feeding none. The soil conditions are similar but the cost of feed is €2/cow/day higher with the meal- (€200/day per 100 cows, €1400/100 cows/week).

Poor quality information on meal

The reality is, that very often, meal is fed as a substitute for poor pasture management or through being convinced by the salesman that cows need the meal to support higher levels of production. One farmer mentioned that his ‘nutritionist’ had advised him to feed 5Kg/cow/day. Conveniently, the ‘nutritionist’ was also the supplier of the meal, effectively making him a ‘salesman’. He never asked what the pasture cover was, soil conditions, stocking rate or area grazed, or other crucial factors. I am completely unclear as to how the 5Kg/cow figure was arrived at.

Furthermore, I find there is a real lack of understanding and believing in the grass, in most cases where high levels of meal/cake/ration/concentrate are fed, with farmers often misled by sales people.  Their worries are often confirmed by the performance of the poorly managed grass.

Managing your pasture for optimum energy

The reality is that cows eat grass. How you manage it makes all the difference in the level of production achieved. The main driver of production is energy. I always use the Mega Joules of Metabolisable Energy (MJME) measure to look at intakes, rather than looking at KgDM alone, as it helps me to focus on what drives production. Good pasture in the second/third rotation can potentially have 12.5MJME/KgDM and cows can be managed to have intakes up to 18KgDM/cow/day+ on pasture alone. At 18KgDM intakes, the cow would achieve intakes of around 225MJME/day. She would use 65 to 70MJME for live-weight maintenance, leaving 160MJME for production. It takes around 5.5MJME to produce a litre of milk at 8-8.2% fat and protein so 160MJME divided by 5.5MJME is 29 litres or 2.3/2.4KgMS/cow/day.

If you have left high residuals in the previous rotation or tend to graze grass when it has got beyond 3000KgDM/Ha (1500KgDM/Ha available) then the digestibility of the grass will reduce. This limits the energy in the plant as well as the volume the cow is able to consume. This may be only a minor difference with them consuming 17.5KgDM at 12MJME/KgDM, or, as is often the case of the farmers feeding high levels of meal, further deterioration of the grass quality limits the digestibility limits intakes to 16.5-17KgDM/cow at 11 to 11.5MJME/KgDM.

17.5KgDM at 12MJME is 210MJME, minus 65MJME for LW = 145MJME = 26.4 litres

17KgDM at 11.5MJME is 200MJME, minus 65MJME for LW = 131MJME = 23.8 litres

As you can see, the calculation looks minor but the consequences are huge! The cows eating 17KgDM at 11.5MJME/KgDM need to be fed 4Kg of meal/cow/day just to get them to the same production as the cows eating the well managed pasture with no meal at all.

The importance of substitution

The other massive influencing factor is substitution. If it wasn’t for substitution, you could feed the cows as much as you like. They would eat the grass and the meal you fed would go directly to production. Using the above figures to produce milk, if the cow has already maintained her LW then every Kg of meal at 12MJME/Kg+ would produce another 2 litres+ but this is never the case. The reason is substitution.

For every Kg of meal a cow eats, she will eat a certain amount less grass. Research would suggest that the average cow will have around a 10 to 20% substitution rate for the first Kg of meal, around 50% for the second, 80 to 90% for the third and 90%+ for every Kg thereafter. This means that for the 4th Kg of meal fed at 25 cents/Kg, the cow will eat 0.9KgDM+ less grass (which is roughly a quarter of the cost of meal).

Consequences of appetite suppression

Not only that, the more meal you feed, the more difficult it becomes to achieve target pasture residuals as appetite is suppressed by the meal. This means that you now run the risk of lower quality pasture in the next rotation, a further cost to production. Ultimately, you are spending money on meal to then lose further money in lost production, unless you now feed more meal to compensate. This is what happens in many high feeding rate situations. It is entirely understandable why farmers struggle to see the benefits of grass anymore as the production potential from the lower digestibility/MJME grass is limited.  Farmers just need to understand that this is as a result of management, not the potential of grass.

If you have enough grass and are able to get good utilisation grazing it, there is no reason to be feeding more than 2Kg/cow meal for optimum profitability.

Wide spread myths about grass

In wet weather cows need more meal to compensate for the lower DM in the grass.

Grass doesn’t magically have a substantial drop in DM% when it rains. If you put a leafy salad in a bowl and then sprinkled water all over it, the leafy salad is still the same DM but the overall dish is now a lower DM due to the water included. Grass is much the same. The cows will take in more water alongside the grass in wet weather but as a rule they need to take in at least 3 litres of water for every litre of milk produced anyway. They now just need to do fewer trips to the drinking trough to get this intake. The only reason you may need to offer more meal in wet weather would be if utilisation of grass drops due to treading or smearing mud over the grass which lowers grass intakes.

Holstein cows need high levels of meal or they’ll lose too much weight/not produce/not get in-calf.

Holstein cows are at risk of having an energy deficit in early lactation, condition called adipose tissue mobilisation. The higher the diet protein %, the greater the issue. You would get better results feeding 3Kg/cow high energy, low protein ration then you would if you fed 6Kg/cow 18% ‘fancy name nut’. It is more about balancing what’s in surplus in the grass then to add extra to it.

I need to feed 4Kg of meal to get a ‘full rate’ of magnesium into the cows.

What is full rate? Most farmers don’t seem to know what the actual requirements are. Instead, they simply follow what the feed rep tells them. Get a blend of straights mixed with enough Mg to fulfil requirements. If you want to supplement 80g/cow/day, get 40g of Mg/Kg mixed in. Alternatively, find another way to get Mg into the cows that is more economic.

I need to feed some meal to get the cows to come into the parlour.

In most cases, cows are more settled after a week with no meal than those that feed a Kg or so/cow. Cows are creatures of habit. Break the habit.




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