Managing dairy for feed efficiency offers savings

Understanding feed efficiency on the dairy can save producers 30 to 40 cents per cow per day in feed costs. While genetic research is being done to address the issue, there are things dairymen can do now to improve feed efficiency.
Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on January 23, 2014 10:39AM

With feed costs representing 50 to 60 percent of a dairyman’s cost of production, monitoring and managing the feed efficiency of his herd could improve his bottom line, an expert says.

Understanding feed efficiency in a dairy herd — a cow’s ability to convert dry matter intake into milk — could save dairymen 30 to 40 cents per cow per day, said Mike Hutjens, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Animal Science.

Feed efficiency (FE) is “the” measure of productivity for beef, swine, poultry and fish, but hasn’t been monitored in dairy cattle until recently, he said during the Hoard’s Dairyman January webinar.

The industry today is capturing only about 20 percent of the nutrients cows consume each day, with 80 percent of feed not being converted to milk. The industry has doubled that efficiency over the last 80 years but will improve a lot quicker with a focus on feed efficiency, he said.

Feed efficiency in lactating cows varies from below 1.3, meaning one pound of feed produces 1.3 pounds of milk, to more than 2.0, he said.

For a cow producing 70 pounds of milk a day and a dry matter feed cost of 12 cents per pound, the difference between a feed efficiency of 1.3 and 1.4 would mean feeding 4 pounds less dry matter for a savings of 48 cents per day. A difference between 1.4 and 1.5 would mean 3 pounds less dry matter for a savings of 36 cents a day. On a 1,000-cow dairy, that represents a daily savings of $480 and $360, respectively.

Those are big numbers and speaks volumes in what the industry can do to improve profitability, Hutjens said.

While research is done to address feeding efficiency through genetics, there are things dairy producers can do on their farms today to improve feed efficiency, he said.

Those include increasing milk production, adding an additional lactation, reducing the age of the animal at first lactation, reducing the calving interval, reducing dietary protein and reducing feed waste.

Reducing feed waste has the biggest impact and doesn’t involve genetics or digestive changes. It simply means not wasting feed during harvest, storage and feeding and in the feed bunks, he said.

“That’s the big 100-pound gorilla in the room,” he said.

Other areas to consider include the size of the animal, reducing heat increment losses, increasing forage quality, increasing feed digestibility, controlling cow activity — such as walking to and from pasture — and grouping cows to match nutrient needs, he said.

The biggest factors affecting feed efficiency are feed digestibility, days in milk (with feed efficiency markedly dropping after 200 days), rumen acidosis and somatic cell count.

Dairymen can measure feed efficiency on their dairy by using a free software spreadsheet program from Zinpro Corp. called FED or by using Hutgens’ “swag” system on the University of Illinois website.


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