An obvious statement really but cattle are ruminants. They have a rumen that is designed to breakdown plant material and release the energy within it. A health rumen means a healthy and hopefully profitable animal. The rumen has a fibre mat that floats on top of it and keeps conditions right for optimal anaerobic digestion. If low fibre products, such as concentrate or low NDF silages are fed, it may be the case that fibre supplementation may be required to balance the diet.
Feeding fibre to ruminants has always been a challenge. It is normally unpalatable and can reduce energy density in the ration. However, the advantages can be enormous. Increased rumen PH, reduced rumen outflow, reduction in the occurrence of SARA and generally making the digestive process more efficient. Fibre levels in rations can be increased by altering the level of fibre (or hopefully digestible fibre) within the concentrate portion of the diet. Sugar beet or soya hulls could replace wheat for example to increase the level of effective NDF in the diet but this is more of nutritional balancing act than operation that farmers can do from their own resources. Feeding fibre as a forage is where farmers can take the lead in rumen health.
Making more fibrous silages can be the solution (especially if dedicated to dry cows) but once the fibre is in there (by cutting later) then it cannot be removed and thus reduces ration flexibility let alone energy density. Adding a fibre forage to the correct level is the ideal solution.
Mixer wagons allow fibre to the universally added to the other ration components. For farmers without wagons, making fibre easier to eat by chopping bales in the baler, raising up feed heights, increased access times can all help. For those with wagons. Pre processing the fibre is the way to regulate the amount of fibre eaten by the animal.
Many farmers use their wagon as a processor. Manufactures claim this is possible but in reality most wagons tend to smash and tear fibre sources (usually straw or sometimes hay) to bits rather than cutting or shredding them. The result tends to be uneven forage length and the destruction of the “scratch factor” that the rumen is looking for. If a wagon with the correct and sharp blades is going to be used, filling the wagon with the forage, say straw, and process a whole wagon load at once ( to get straw to straw abrasion ), unload it and then load the required pre processed straw back into the desired total diet.
However, the best solution is to process with a tub grinder or specialised straw chopper with a sieve. These machines can normally process about 4-5 tons per hour at a cost of between £90- £100 per hour. The quality of straw can make a huge difference to the output of the tub grinder and management techniques like running a bale of hay through ( if available) every fifth bale can help to keep the machine clear and also make a more palatable end product. From a rumen health viewpoint, the ground fibre is much more accessible to the rumen microbes due to its increased surface area and uniformity, and the fact that greater levels of structural fibre can be added to the ration without rejection or sorting.
Storage if the processed product can be an issue, with storing inside ideal, but outside with a sheet can be done if the farmer is willing to sheet and tyre down on a daily basis.
The cost of processing the fibre is between £20 – £25 per ton. This is obviously an increased cost but if it reduces rumen health issues, increases dry matter intake in the all important dry cow, allows total flexibility in ration management, it is a probably an investment not a cost.
Rumen health is everything in profitable cattle management. Fibre intake and utilisation controls rumen health, thus manage the fibre, manage the rumen, manage the profit.