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Buffer Feeding - Making the Most of It

It is always difficult to decide whether to buffer feed or not, depending on your viewpoint of maximum grass utilisation, or of maximum cow performance. This also has a lot to do with your type of cow and your yield expectations. There is no doubt that if you buffer feed maximum grazed grass utilisation will be compromised, but it is still possible to get good grazed grass utilisation, and buffer feed. However it has to be done in the right way and to be flexible in feed formulation and offering.

Why should I buffer feed?

The first consideration is that grass, especially spring grass, is out of balance with the rumen requirements, being high in rumen degradable protein and low in fibre.  This nutrient imbalance is particularly acute for recently calved and high yielding cows. The second constraint can be a shortage of overall energy because of cows not achieving their total expected DM Intake due to grass shortage or inclement weather. DMI can commonly fall from 20kgs to 14kgs and the problems that can arise from these two constraints are:

  • Very loose dung in spring and autumn

  • High blood and milk ureas

  • Rapidly dropping butterfat percentages- because of low forage fibre and sub-optimal rumen function

  • Drop in milk protein percentage – due to insufficient energy intake

  • Excessive bodyweight loss – often not noticed until later in the season

  • Increased fertility problems – not seen until later in the season, particularly as bulling activity will be good

  • Increased culling rate because of the above

In trying to address these factors the next question is which type of forage and how much of it do I feed?

Research from Northern Ireland has found that maize silage as a buffer gave the best results in tackling the problems above and the best level which to feed was 3-4kg DMI/day. There was also work done by SAC/MDC (see table), that showed a positive response to good high DM big bale silage.  There are different ways to tackle the problem and the most important consideration is to ensure the forage you buffer feed with is of good quality. The DM substitution of buffer fed grass silage to grass is at least 1:1, so why feed a forage with a much lower nutrient value unless grazing conditions are so bad that there is no other choice.

We also outlined in the March newsletter that, if you substitute with an HDF type compound, less grazing dry matter will be replaced, therefore maintaining better grazing utilisation e.g. 0.5:1 – 0.7:1 compared to 1:1 and a higher total DM intake – gaining a higher yields. 

Substitution from supplementary feeding with a plentiful grazing supply 


Substitution rate
(kg grass DM replaced
per kg supplement DM)

Grass silage




18% protein compound


Source: Mayne & Lever 1997

Response to different forage supplements 


3kg DM Concentrate



+ maize silage

+ high DM big bale

+ low DM big bale

Milk (kg/day)





Fat %





Protein %





Buffer forage intake





SAC/MDC 1995

If maintaining or improving butterfat % is the main consideration, then it will be necessary to look at the structural fibre level of the diet, and not just the NDF (neutral detergent fibre), to ensure you achieve optimal rumen function and effective fibre digestion, so aiding butterfat %. 

When is the best time to buffer feed?

For best effect, and to ensure optimal grazing utilisation, cows should be brought in and confined with access to the buffer feed for 2-4 hours before afternoon milking and the amount of buffer adjusted so that it is all gone 20-30 minutes before milking, as long as milking isn’t taking four hours! The reason for this is that IGER work has shown that grazed grass consumption and utilisation is best after evening milking as grass sugar levels and DM are higher.

Turning cows out with an appetite, into a new paddock for the evening, will maximise grass intake and improve yields. Feeding the buffer before milking ensures total forage intakes are optimised and it is also important if concentrates are being fed with the forage buffer as a carrier. Ensure all cows get equal access to the buffer feed so that they get a uniform intake. Again there is a need to be flexible in the amount of buffer offered depending on the daily weather and grazing conditions and grass availability for which using a plate meter will provide an accurate measurement.

It’s easy to see where cows have gone into fresh paddocks/fields as there is a rise in the bulk milk yield on the next day, when this happens it indicates that total DMI targets haven’t been met on the previous day and it will be the fresh calved cows that have been affected most. It is always the fresh calved cows that suffer if there are problems in achieving overall daily DMI targets, or if they don’t have equal access to the buffer.

Your local agri-business development manager or feed specialist will be able to help you look at areas where slight changes can be made to improve buffer feed provision to improve returns. 

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