Feed truck
July 16, 2020

Technologies Identify the 7 ‘Known Unknowns’ of Feeding Cows

 |  By: Aidan Connolly

Precision nutrition means feeding cows precisely what they need. Their needs are to achieve optimal milk production, be healthy and meet the requirements of today’s consumer. Producers might however say the feeding cows reminds us of the Donald Rumsfeld’s famous comment about ‘known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknown’s’. Certainly, the variation that exists in accurately feeding cows is enormous. These challenge producers, consultants, nutritionists, and veterinarians.

7 Known Unknowns  

1) What Feed did we formulate?

Dairy feed formulation is a challenge. Unlike other livestock the heavy use of forages, where the product changes by field and location within the field, and the use of by-products means variable fiber and variable substrates.  Moisture variation is also a challenge the nutritionist who is formulating for the average but innovations such as Cargill’s Reveal Analysis allows this to be determined.  

2) What feed did the feed mill deliver? 

The challenges of manufacturing, conditioning, and pelleting dairy feed is a real task. Feed mills are trying to remove this variable by using NIR inline sensors, and ELISA and other rapid kit tests to detect toxins such Mycotoxins.  Even ingredients such a soybean meal considered to be uniform but under scrutiny this ‘standardized’ ingredient’s crude protein can vary by up-to 2%. 

3) What feed was offered to the cow? 

The mixing of feed on the farm provides another opportunity to create a known unknown. Mix for too long the feed separates, mix too short a time and it isn’t mixed enough. Cloud based systems such as In-Touch address this need and are being embraced by on-farm mixer technology. 

4) What did the cow really eat?

Since we domesticated the cow we have never had the ability, or the patience, to watch cows 24/7. Sifting of feed particles, out of feed events are critical. We now know from artificial intelligence and systems such Cainthus Alus what cows actually consume, and for the first time know how they behave when humans aren’t around. Camera sensors and AI observe and generate insights to allow us to see what the cows actually consumed and is now being implemented on the largest and most progressive dairies in the United States. 

5) How do nutrients interact in the rumen, digestive tract? 

The associative digestibility of different feed ingredients is incredibly important. Each additional feedstuff potentially can change the digestibility of the feed from feed-mill through its influence on the rumen bacteria. Identifying true digestibility’s once the feed is mixed is being tackled by start-up Fermentric’s through artificial intelligence and machine learning is modelling rumen bacterial microflora changes in a laboratory setting and already services 700,000 cows.    

6) How does the feed change microflora in the rumen, duodenum?

Measuring the changes in the cow’s microflora have been complicated by the fact that most of the bacteria can’t be cultured. Now using DNA profiling, it is possible to map the changes, show what shifts have taken place. Diamond V’s RAMM system has 30 years of doing this and Alltech’s IFM is looking at pre-conditioning the rumen with yeast culture.  

7) What milk quality did the cow really produce?

While nutrition can be shown to increase milk production what milk did we produce? Did we increase the gallons or litres of milk or did we increase milk solids? Is the milk safe? We know cows are incredibly efficient at taking whatever is in the feed and putting it into their milk. This is usually a good thing, but it also means feed toxins can appear in the milk. Traditional milk equipment companies have looked at this in the past but start-ups such as SomaDetect and now Labby are providing revolutionary technology to addressing these questions. 

Consumer demands also loom larger than ever. Milk producers must continue their pursuit of efficiency, but consumers are becoming more selective, questioning what animals eat and how they are kept. Affordable milk products have been the hallmark of the dairy industry as it advances, but this increasingly includes demands relating to animal welfare, carbon footprint and functional foods with extra health benefits. 

Technology allows producers to capture and use data, sharing animal nutrition information through all the steps in the food chain whereby the farm, feed mill, processing plant, retailer and consumer are connected. Feed and feeding practices must mirror farm and consumer demand, both dramatically increasing efficiency and reducing waste. As a nutritionist visiting a farm in California where the Cainthus camera system has been installed on 3,500 cows said, “This is every bit as revolutionary as the first installations of the automatic milkers.”  

The seven known unknowns won’t be quite so unknown for long!  


Aidan Connolly is presenting at the Farm Journal Field Days this August 25-27, which includes a deep dive into the future of technology in the livestock industry on Tuesday, August 25, at 12:15 p.m. 

In addition to the three days of virtual learning, Farm Journal is partnering with 4-H to showcase the hard work and effort 4-H’ers put into their projects this year through a #FarmOn Benefit concert. The concert will feature country music stars like Lee Brice and Justin Moore as a way to highlight the work and passion youth continue to put into their projects and communities.

Register now for the Farm Journal Field Days!