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Defoliation pattern, foraging behaviour and diet selection by lactating dairy cows in response to sward height and herbage allowance of a ryegrass-dominated pasture

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The effects of sward surface height (SSH) and daily herbage allowance (HA) on the defoliation pattern and grazing mechanics of early lactation dairy cows grazing on irrigated perennial ryegrass–white clover pasture were studied. The hypothesis tested was that SSH and HA affect intake and diet selection through their effects on the pattern of defoliation which is influenced by the resistance to prehension bites.

Factorial combinations of two initial SSH (14 and 28 cm) and two daily HA (35 and 70 kg DM cow−1 d−1) were examined in a replicated experiment. The peak longitudinal tensile force required to break the sward portion encompassed in a 100 cm2 area [bite fracture force (BFF100)] was measured as an index of the resistance to prehension.

The volume of herbage defoliated and herbage intake increased with SSH (P < 0·05) and HA (P < 0·01). Corresponding to an increase in HA from 35 to 70 kg DM cow−1 d−1, there was a proportional increase in the total defoliation area (TDA) and intake by 0·24 and 0·55 in the short sward compared with 0·16 and 0·32 in the tall sward respectively. The results of this experiment suggest that a consistent spatial pattern of reduction of the canopy exists during defoliation by cows and that the volume of sward canopy defoliated is the major variable affecting herbage intake.

The BFF increased down the sward profile at a rate that was higher (P < 0·05) for the taller sward than for the shorter sward. It is proposed that a relatively lower resistance to prehension in the short sward compared with the tall sward explains the greater proportionate increase in TDA and intake corresponding to an increase in HA. The rate at which BFF100 increases down the sward profile is suggested as a sward physical variable that can influence the defoliation process. The estimated time and energy costs of prehension bites are discussed in the context that larger bites are handled more efficiently than smaller bites.
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Keywords: bite fracture force; defoliation area; defoliation pattern; herbage allowance; sward surface height

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Animal Production, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia 2: Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Agriculture Victoria, Kyabram Dairy Centre, Kyabram, Victoria, Australia

Publication date: 2003-09-01

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