Nearly all cows sort their feed to some degree. That is why the leftover feed is the larger and unpalatable portions of the feed. Depending on conditions, the amount of sorting varies widely.
The degree and overall effect of sorting on cow performance is worth your attention. To evaluate the level of sorting, look for certain symptoms that indicate feed sorting is a problem.
Watching the cows eat is informative, especially just after feed delivery. In a well-mixed and palatable ration, cows will eat aggressively from the top of the feed pile as soon as it is delivered.
The cow’s head often stays in one spot or moves slightly. Spilling from the cow’s mouth is relatively low, and consumption is rapid. As she progresses, you may see feed falling from her mouth, and eventually, the tell-tale hole burrowed into the feed all the way to the feeding surface. She is nibbling the fines or goodies as they fall into the funnel while leaving the less desirable feeds behind. This also occurs if the cow burrows through the feed, shifting feed concentrates into the hole. When this occurs, the feed in the bunk changes in appearance.
It is easiest to notice if the feed has been in front of the cows for some time and they have selected what they want. Given that cows have a pecking order, the result of feed sorting means different cows get different diets and intake.
Common contributors to ration sorting
Sorting may become a health and financial issue. Cows that aggressively sort feed do not get a balanced diet. Mostly they get too much concentrate and not enough fiber. This is accompanied by shifts in manure consistency. The cow sorting for grains today is often slightly off feed the next day and sorting for fiber to correct her unhealthy rumen pH. The result is lower milk or components or acute digestive issues.
In a crowded pen, where bunk space may be limited, the aggressive cows sort out the goodies, and the passive cows eat the already-sorted feed. Neither animal meets her target feed requirements.
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