CDE: Five factors for SOPs to avoid an ‘SOS’ in feeding dairy cattle

By Dr. David Welch


For any dairy farm to be successful, several management systems must be implemented and closely monitored. On most farms, these include feeding, milking, waste management and health/reproduction and cow comfort. In this article, we’ll explore feeding strategies, which can be divided into five basic steps – preparing the feed bunk, determining appropriate amounts of feed to mix, loading the mixer, mixing feed and distributing the feed.


Feeding dairy cattle is a critical stage in the process of producing milk from forage and concentrates. Feeders should realize the importance of following sound feeding standards of operating procedures (SOPs). Many dairies do not include record keeping as part of the feeding process SOP. Many who do find measuring allows them to focus on management changes leading to less waste, healthier cows and increased profitability. 

Following are five factors to consider in writing SOPs for feeding the herd.


1) Preparing the feed bunk should involve more than cleaning out old feed. Some farms include a step to weigh the refusals, while others quantify the refusals by counting the buckets remaining in the bunk. It is important that changes in amounts of refusals be addressed. In all cases, the quantity of the refusals should be recorded at each feeding.

Determination of amounts to be mixed may not need to be addressed daily. However, changes in refusals – a big increase or a big decrease – may occur due to changes in cow numbers, requiring an adjustment in the mixing chart. If the group size is unchanged and there is a change in refusals, forages and high moisture content may be the culprit. Not addressing changes in moisture can lead to a waste of feed and/or a ration that is unhealthy, potentially leading to metabolic diseases. Regardless, testing of forages for moisture changes should be a part of the feeding SOP and should occur at least once a week.


2) After changes are made in the amounts of feed to mix, loading the mixer can occur. It is important to follow feed order loading recommendations from the manufacturer. First, check the weight on the scale, which should read zero so you know the mixer was completely emptied after the last feeding. Each ingredient should be added, with the weight being written down in the feeder notebook. Often, the exact desired weight will not be reached, but it is important to record the actual weight, not the desired weight. Measuring and recording the weights are important, so that any technology or feeding management changes can be compared to any improvements that may occur with the adoption of new technology or change in management. If you don’t measure it, you won’t change it.


3) Loading the mixer utilizing forages stored in bunk silos requires special attention. Extra care should be taken in facing a corn silage or haylage bunk silo. In bunk silos, layering of feed at ensiling may result in pockets or layers that are significantly different in moisture or feed quality than the bunk face as a whole. The ideal method to loosen the feed uniformly is to use a mechanical defacer that will remove a uniform thickness of feed from the entire face. Otherwise, every attempt should be made to loosen some feed from the entire bunk face at each feed mixing using the loader blade. In either case, no more feed should be removed from the face than what can be fed at that feeding.


4) Mix the feed in the mixer following the recommendation of the manufacturer. It should be emphasized to first-time mixer operators that if the manufacturer states the mixing time should be 5 minutes, over-mixing up to 10 minutes is not better. 


5) Distributing feed is the last stage. It is important the feed be distributed evenly along the length of the feed bunk. After the feeding is complete, feeding times should be recorded in the feeding book, and necessary changes in the SOP process should be evaluated and implemented accordingly.


Dr. David Welch, VMD, is one of two Dairy Decisions Consultants for Employees (DDCe) with the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence. For more information, phone: 717.346.0849 or visit and click on “Business Tools”.