Project code: D-33-06

Duration 2.5 years, commencing February 2006

Team and Leader C. Ferris, N.O’Connell, D.Patterson, (ARINI, Hillsborough), M. McCoy (Veterinary Science Division)

Organisations involved ARINI, VSD

Background and Summary

The higher nutrient requirements of high genetic merit dairy cows have been clearly established in a number of recent studies.  Meeting these higher nutrient requirements involves either increasing the nutrient density of the diet, and/or increasing total dry matter intake.  Many studies have examined ‘nutritional strategies’ by which feed intake can be increased.  Strategies examined include technologies to improve silage feed value (rapid wilting, acidification, improved digestibility), appropriate concentrate feeding strategies and concentrate types, and the use of alternative feeds such as maize silage, whole crop cereals and fodder beet.  

However, it is suggested that feed intake could also be increased through ‘non nutritional strategies’.  These non-nutritional strategies would involve increasing both the accessibility and availability of the feed on offer.  

Feed accessibility is affected by many factors.  The range of winter-feeding systems currently in use within Northern Ireland is extremely wide, and includes self-feed silage systems, easy-feed silage systems and complete diet systems.  Within the latter two systems, a huge range of feed barrier designs are employed, including simple ‘rail’ systems, ‘tomb stone’ systems, barriers with individual cow head spaces, ‘locking systems’, and barriers designed to maximise cow reach.  Some of these may include feed trough systems.  Even simple rail type barriers vary considerably in design, especially in relation to the heights of the top rail/stub walls.  Similarly, the number of cows sharing a single feed space, and the amount of feed space per cow, varies widely from farm to farm, with literature recommendations for the latter ranging from 20 – 60 cm per cow. 

Feeding frequency also varies from farm to farm, with some farms offering fresh feed two or three times daily, while others offer the forage components of the diet weekly.  Access to feed may also be hampered by long milking times on some farms, while poor lighting of feed barriers in many houses may also have a negative effect on feed intake.  Feed availability may be another critical issue, with some farmers striving to have feed continuously available to livestock, while others may allow cows to face an empty feed passage for 2 – 3 hours each day.  In view of the wide range of ‘feed systems’ currently used within Northern Ireland, it is likely that many of these systems are far from optimum in terms of feed accessibility and availability.  Options by which feed accessibility might be increased include, optimising feed space per animal, optimising barrier type and design, changing the presentation of feed, and achieving optimum heifer/cow housing strategies.   Feed availability may be improved by altering feeding frequency, and minimising ‘empty barrier’ time.

The potential of these ‘non-nutritional strategies’ to influence feed intake, and ultimately cow performance, health and welfare is particularly important at present in view of rapidly expanding herd sizes on many Northern Ireland dairy farms.  As herds expand, some farmers continue to make use of existing feed passages, thus reducing the feed space per cow, while others are extending houses and constructing new ‘feed barriers’ at considerable cost.  Clear guidance on optimum feed management strategies are limited, and advice often conflicting.

Collaborative research:

A number of Research Institutes have ongoing research programmes (University of British Columbia, Canada), or are planning to establish research programmes (Crichton Royal (SAC), Scotland), to examine this particular issue.  This research programme will be conducted in collaboration with SAC.  The establishment of a successful collaborative research project will enable results to be freely shared between both centres, thus giving Northern Ireland farmers full access to findings of studies conducted at each centre.

Proposed programme:

A minimum of four studies will be conducted by ARINI, with studies designed to examine a number of the key issues highlighted above.  Study 1 will be established to examine feed space per cow, and will be designed to encompass the range of recommended feed allowances quoted in the literature, namely 20, 40 and 60 cm/cow.  This study will establish a bench-mark space allowance for subsequent studies. 

The most likely areas to be examined in subsequent studies will be barrier design, optimum number of cows/head space, and impact of feed availability.  Actual study areas may be modified depending on the outcomes of initial studies, and new findings from other research groups.  Where possible, all studies will include a mixture of heifers and multiparous animals.  In addition to examining the effect of feed management regime on feed intake, milk yield and composition, and body tissue changes, behavioural and welfare measurements and an assessment of the impact of system on labour requirements will be included, where appropriate.  The project will include a review of historical findings and recent developments appearing in the literature.


Technology transfer:
1.     This research project will be highlighted when farmer and Industry groups visit the Institute.
2.     A press article will be produced on completion of each study, and on completion of the project.
3.     Results will be presented during evening farmer meetings, for example, with dairy discussion groups.
4.     Results may be specifically addressed within special events, for example, Open days or farmers conference.
5.     Results will be presented at Scientific Conferences, and ultimately published in the Scientific press.

Potential financial value to Northern Ireland dairy farmers:

Financial benefits to farmers may arise in a number of different ways, including savings on investment and labour if simple feeding systems prove to be as effective as more complex systems, increased milk yields, reduced energy balance and improved fertility associated with increased nutrient intakes.  Direct financial benefits of improved fertility can be estimated as follows:  assuming a 10% adoption rate, and a reduction in calving interval of 1 day/annum, the value would be 290, 000 (cows) x 0.1 x £1.53 = £44, 370/annum.  The programme will also have the indirect benefit of causing farmers to think more specifically about feed availability and accessibility.  This could result in indirect financial benefits in areas not directly addressed by the research programme



February 2006:       Commence Project
January 2007:         Studies 1 and 2 completed
February 2007:       Commence Study 3
March 2008:           Studies 3 and 4 completed
July 2008:               Project ends

Outputs to AgriSearch (with timescales):
January 2007:         1st Progress report
January 2008:         2nd Progress report
July 2008:               Final report
September 2008:     Publication of farmers booklet


The benefits to the Industry arising from this research programme are several:
1)       Collaborative findings: If a collaborative programme is successfully established, Northern Ireland farmers will gain access to the findings of two research programmes, for the ‘cost of one’.
2)       Increased food intakes:  If nutrient intakes can be increased through non-nutritional strategies, the extent of negative energy balance that cows experience in early lactation should be reduced, with this having a positive effect on cow fertility and milk composition.  In addition, a similar outcome might be expected if stress associated with feeding can be reduced.
3)       Guidance for expanding units: Findings from the study will assist farmers who are expanding cow numbers to develop optimum design of feeding systems.
4)       Savings in labour:    Labour requirements associated with different feeding systems vary considerably.  Studies may highlight feeding systems that could reduce labour requirements without any loss of performance.
5)       Review of international findings:  A review of literature will be undertaken to identify key research findings from other groups involved in this area.
6)       Increased awareness of issues of feed availability and accessibility:  Coming into direct contact with this programme, will raise awareness of the issues, and increase the ‘mindset’ of operating feed systems to maximise feed intakes.

See the project's final report here.

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