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A model predicting the seasonal dynamics of intake and production for suckler cows and their calves fed indoors or at pasture

Jouven, M., Agabriel, J., Baumont, R.
Animal feed science and technology 2008 v.143 no.1-4 pp. 256-279
mathematical models, ruminant nutrition, prediction, seasonal variation, nutrient intake, milk production, suckling, cows, calves, cow feeding, calf feeding, body condition, body weight, energy balance
To investigate the dynamics of animal intake and production in grassland-based suckler systems, we constructed a model for suckling cows with their calves. The model calculates on a day-to-day basis the selective intake at pasture and the animal production (weight, condition, milk production) in response to energy intake. The model dynamically applies the feed evaluation systems developed by the INRA: the “cattle fill unit” system to predict forage intake, and the “feed unit” system to predict net energy requirements and supply. To predict intake at pasture, we adapted the cattle fill unit system by adding effects of herbage availability and sward structural composition on the amount and quality of intake. At pasture, the grazeable herbage is divided into structural components characterized by their biomass and digestibility. The model predicts the composition of the diet, assuming that the most digestible and abundant components of herbage are preferred. The amount of herbage ingested depends on the animal profile, the digestibility of the diet and the amount of herbage available. Sward depletion by animal intake at pasture has feedback effects on herbage growth and quality, which can be calculated by a vegetation model. Animal production is calculated based on net energy balance, which is the difference between net energy intake and net energy requirements for maintenance (for cow and calf), gestation and lactation (for the cow). The net energy balance determines weight and condition gain or loss, and - after 3 months of lactation - influences milk production the following day. Changes in weight and condition have feedback effects on energy requirements and intake capacity. Sensitivity analysis on the input values highlighted the importance of forage digestibility for the production of cows and calves. Calf growth was also driven over 3 months old by calf live weight, and under 3 months old by the milk production of the cow. The model's response to stocking rate during the grazing down of a paddock was consistent with current knowledge. The model was validated against experimental data for cows fed indoors or at pasture, at different feed allowances. Model predictions were precise for the digestibility of intake and for live weight (error represents 2-3% of the average observed value), satisfactory for dry matter intake, body condition score and milk production at the beginning of lactation (error represents 10% of the average observed value), and very imprecise for milk production after the third month of lactation (error represents 23% of the average observed value), but the latter had small consequences on calf live weight.