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Dairy Focus: Feeding Impacts Dairy Efficiency

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist
Impact on Feed Costs in Two Herds with Different Feed Efficiencies Impact on Feed Costs in Two Herds with Different Feed Efficiencies
Benchmarks for Feed Efficiency Comparisons Benchmarks for Feed Efficiency Comparisons
Dairy farmers need to improve feed efficiency to maintain their profit margin.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

Editors note: This is the fifth article in a series on the issues facing the region’s dairy farmers, particularly the impact of the growing ethanol industry.

Many factors can reduce a dairy operation’s profit margin.

Although managing cows, crops and manure systems every day leaves little time for long-term planning, making time to look for inefficiencies in dairy enterprises is crucial. Production efficiency is influenced by culling practices, preproduction, milk quality and feed rations.

Often referred to as dairy efficiency, feed efficiency easily comes to the table during times of low milk prices and/or high feed costs. Dairy efficiency can be defined as pounds of milk produced per pound of dry matter (DM) consumed. The beef, swine, fish and poultry industries have used feed efficiency (feed-to-gain ratio) as a benchmark for profitability. Monitoring dairy efficiency (DE) in the dairy industry has not been used as a common benchmark for monitoring profitability and evaluating dry-matter intake relative to milk yield.

The new focus on maximizing efficiency is that as cows consume more feed, digestive efficiency decreases and the relationship between net energy-lactation intake and milk production is subject to diminishing returns. The traditional focus was that as cows consume more feed to support higher milk production, the proportion of digested nutrients captured as milk was proportionally higher.

One way to maintain profitability without sacrificing milk production or herd health is by enhancing feed efficiency.

Here is an example of how improving feed efficiency impacts the bottom line. Herd A produced 80 pounds of milk, consuming 57 pounds of dry-matter intake (DMI), for a feed efficiency of 1.40. Herd B produced the same amount of milk, but the cows consumed only 50 pounds of DM, for a feed efficiency of 1.60. Assuming feed costs of 7 cents per pound of dry matter, Herd B has a lower feed cost of 49 cents per cow per day, compared with Herd A. In addition, Herd B, with the lower feed intake and higher feed efficiency, will have lower nutrient excretion as manure. This will be important because manure regulations for whole-farm nutrient management are enforced by local, state and national government groups.

Optimizing feed intake is the magic term, not maximizing DMI. Higher nutrient demand for higher milk production led to maximum DMI to meet higher requirements. The more DM the cow eats, the more she will milk. For Holstein cows, each additional pound of DM consumed could lead to an additional 2 pounds of milk. If 1 pound of DM costs 7 cents, 2 pounds of milk can be worth 30 cents in added income, or 23 cents more income over feed costs. This guideline assumes two points.

  • Ration digestibility is constant (but digestibility declines with increased DMI).
  • All the nutrients consumed are converted to milk production after maintenance needs have been met (not true as growth and/or weight gain occurs).

Composition of the diet (forage-to-grain ratio) and dry-matter intake (multiples of maintenance) have marked effects on digestibility and subsequent energy values. Diets that do not promote optimal rumen fermentation will result in an overestimation of energy values and impair health.

Dairy efficiency values in the field can vary from 1.1 to 2. The following factors will shift DE values:

  • Reducing days in milk can lead to higher DE values because cows direct more nutrients to milk production at the expense of growth and weight gain. Cows losing body condition or body reserves will have high DE values because these nutrients can be captured as higher milk yield.
  • Age or lactation number (first-lactation cows) can lead to lower DE values because young cows divert nutrients to growth in mid and late lactation. Expect DE values for young cows to be 0.1 to 0.2 unit lower than for mature cows.
  • Pregnancy requirements reduce DE values as the fetus requirements increase during late gestation (this impact will be small).
  • Fresh cows (less than 21 days in milk) may have DE values below 1.2 if cows achieve higher DMI (desirable) relative to milk yield. If DE values exceed 1.4, cows could be mobilizing excessive body condition with high milk fat test (undesirable).
  • Cows gaining body weight will have lower DE values because nutrients are stored as body condition or fat. This decline in DE must occur if cows lose body weight in early lactation. Lower DE values in late lactation can be desirable.
  • Higher digestible forage will increase DE values because more nutrients are available for productive functions. Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility tests will be useful benchmarks that will impact DE.
  • As NDF percent in the ration dry matter increased, DE declined from 1.8 to 1.4, based on Journal of Dairy Science data from 2002 to 2004. DE values remained constant at 35 percent NDF and higher.
  • Stimulating rumen fermentation while stabilizing the rumen environment will improve nutrient and fiber digestibility. Rumen acidosis will reduce DE values. When U.S. Department of Agriculture calorimetry data with inverted milk fat-to-milk protein tests (one potential sign of rumen acidosis) were removed, the R squared value was 0.55, compared with only 0.14 when all data comparing DE and DM digestibility were included. The higher R squared value explains more variation relating dry-matter digestibility to higher dairy efficiency values.
  • Excessive heat and cold stress will reduce DE values because more nutrients are needed for maintenance requirements.
  • Feed additives (such as rumen buffers, ionophores, yeast cultures and fermentation/digestion aids) and silage inoculants can improve DE values by improving digestion and/or nutrient availability. A summary of 12 yeast culture studies reflected a 5 percent improvement in DE (control cows averaged 1.26, compared with yeast culture supplemented cows at 1.32).
  • Injecting BST (bovine somatotropin) can improve DE values as cows divert more nutrients to milk production.

Actual feed intake is critical for an accurate DE value. Feed refusals should be subtracted because this feed has not been consumed. If a dairy manager targets 4 percent feed refusal with 50 pounds of dry matter offered, the correct value to use in the calculation is 48 pounds instead of 50 pounds. Weekly dry-matter tests should be conducted on the farm to correct for variation in dry-matter intake due to changes in wet feeds or precipitation.

Also, correct for milk components because more nutrients are needed as milk fat and protein content increase. Values are based on 3.5 percent fat correct milk (FCM). Use the following formulas:

  • Equation 1: 3.5% FCM = (0.4324 x lbs of milk) + (16.216 x lbs of milk fat)
  • Equation 2: 3.5% fat and protein corrected milk (lbs) = (12.82 x lbs fat) + (7.13 x lbs protein) + (0.323 x lbs of milk)

In summary, dairy or feed efficiency reflects the level of fat-corrected milk yield produced per unit of DM consumed, with an optimal range of 1.4 to 1.8 pounds of milk per pound of DM. Days in milk, age, growth, changes in body condition score, body weight, forage quality, feed additives and environmental factors will impact feed efficiency values.

Dairy managers should monitor changes in feed efficiency as feeding and management changes occur on their farms to evaluate the impact of the change. Comparisons among herds must be done carefully.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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