Rethink feeding to lower costs without damaging milk output

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Length: 1124 words; 5-6 minutes

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Although there are significant feed cost savings to be made by increasing milk from forage this summer, it’s a strategy that relies on both correctly balancing nutrient supply to the rumen for maximum feed efficiency, and on using the best value feeds to achieve it. According to KW senior nutritionist Mark Scott, even with lower purchased feed use whilst grazing poor feed choice can potentially still cost milk producers 1ppl or more, and many herds could be losing more than they gain.

“Reducing feed costs without negatively impacting milk yield, milk quality or cow condition is going to be vital for most of the UK’s dairy farmers this summer,” he states. “Making the most of low-cost grazing – still by far the cheapest feed on farm – is essential, but translating this into genuine gains in income over feed costs (IOFC), both now and into the future as well, depends on a number of factors.

“…understand how much milk can be realistically produced from grazing…”

“Firstly, you’ve got to support good rumen function to maximise the conversion of forage fibre into milk output, and that requires at least some additional feeds to supply the nutrients lacking in grazed grass. You also need to understand how much milk can be realistically produced from grazing, and provide the feed needed to prevent higher yielding cows from milking off their backs.”

Long term implications

Losing excess body condition during the grazing season may provide short term feed cost savings during the spring and summer, but will have consequences lasting through next winter. Once housed, cows will divert nutrients from winter rations into rebuilding body reserves rather than milk, potentially leaving production below target for up to 3-4 months.

“It’s important to remember that even the very best of the so-called ‘grazing only’, low input systems typically feed around 1t/cow of concentrate and this is typically through the first 150 or so days of lactation, to support the cow’s peak nutrient requirements which can’t be fully met by grazing alone,” Mr Scott adds.

Figure 1 shows the daily milk yield potential from grazing for the past few years based on measured average grass energy levels, peaking at around 15-17 litres/cow. However, even this peak is only possible under ideal conditions, and lasts for just a matter of weeks before steadily declining, primarily due to reducing daylight hours limiting dry matter intake (DMI).

“For cows in later lactation this isn’t an issue, but for those cows increasing production from July onwards it’s a real problem as they mobilise both body fat (a metabolisable energy source) and muscle (a metabolisable protein source) to support yields,” Mr Scott adds.

Graph showing potential milk yield from grazing
Figure 1 – Potential milk yield from grazing (Source: Trouw Nutrition) – Click to enlarge

Focus on efficiency

“The key is to utilise the potential for milk from grass as efficiently as possible,” he continues. “Splitting the herd will definitely help with this – lower yielders can produce most of their yield from grazing, whilst those operating at maximum efficiency in early lactation receive more support in the form of a well formulated buffer feed.

“Buffer feeding is essential if you want to maximise milk income from forage, including maximising the value of the core or ‘A’ litres produced by ensuring milk quality is at least maintained at ‘winter levels’. Relying instead on in-parlour compound feeding – as the majortiy of UK milk producers still do – has a dramatic negative effect on rumen function.

“This can not only contribute to the seasonal fall in butterfat percentage (figure 2), but in research has also been shown to cut yield by at least 1.5% for an indentical nutrient intake.”

Graph showing average butterfat percentage
Figure 2 – Variation in national herd average butterfat percentage (Source: Defra) – Click to enlarge

According to Mr Scott, the main challenge is to provide the feeds needed to complement, and subsequently balance, grazing and support higher yields as cost-effectively as possible. Sticking to conventional feeding strategies and failing to adapt systems utilising the best value feeds can result in feed costs more than 1ppl higher than they need to be, he claims.

Best value feeds

“The soyabean meal market might be volatile at the moment, but even at its lows a typical feeding rate of 2.5kg FW/cow could have been costing 0.3ppl more than the best value alternative. Instead, take advantage of low cost-cereals by feeding a combination of rolled wheat (1.2kg FW/cow) and the best value rumen-bypass protein SoyPass (1.4kg FW/cow) for the same energy and protein supply, but reduce purchased feed cost by 0.5ppl (table 1).

“Similarly, sticking with 3.5kg FW/cow of a £175/t compound rather than feeding an equivalent dry matter amount of Traffordgold moist feed (6.25kg at 50% DM) will be losing you 0.7ppl,” he adds.

“If the milk processors offered to increase the milk price by that much it would be welcomed with open arms, yet these savings are readily available to many UK milk producers without radical change, just by fine tuning rations and feed choice.”

Table 1 – Example alternative feed strategies to reduce feed costs and maintain performance

Conventional choice

Best value option


Per day

Per litre2

Hi-pro soyabean meal @ 2.5kg FW/cow

Rolled wheat @ 1.2kg FW/cow
+ SoyPass @ 1.4kg FW/cow



Parlour compound @ 3.5kg FW/cow

Traffordgold @ 6.25kg FW/cow



Rolled wheat @ 2.5kg FW/cow

Processed bread @ 3.0kg FW/cow



Hi-pro soyabean meal @ 2.5kg FW/cow

Prototec (protected rapemeal) @ 3kg FW/cow



1Price calculations correct at time of writing and subject to change, based on 29t tipped bulk loads delivered on-farm May to June within 50 miles of origin.
2Based on 25 litres/cow/day.

Other examples include using heat-treated rapemeal (Prototec) as another option to replace hi-pro soyabean meal, and switching from cereals to even better value sources of starch like processed bread. However, Mr Scott is quick to point out that the options listed in the table are just examples, and the actual potential for savings will depend heavily on current feeding practice and the willingness of milk producers to adapt feeding systems to take full advantage of the best value feeds – some could potentially save even more.

“Regardless of whether feed prices are moving up or coming down, it’s important not to just to be feeding the same as in previous years or months, because the options which offer best value will change,” he continues. “More often than not there’s something in the ration that can be switched to a better value alternative to reduce feed costs, and without negatively affecting peformance.

“…it’s often possible to reduce costs and actually increase…performance…”

“In fact, with the right nutrition advice, it’s often possible to reduce costs and actually increase both overall performance and milk from forage, simply because an improved balance of nutrients is boosting rumen function and efficiency.”

Improving overall profitability

This focus on rumen fermentation efficiency means that it’s also critical that low rumen pH and sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA) are avoided, with fibre digestion typically compromised any time rumen content falls below pH5.8. Reformulating buffer feeds to take advantage of better value feeds is an ideal time to check that sufficient digestible and structural fibre is being supplied to help maintain a stable rumen pH.

ProtoTec image
ProtoTec heat-treated rapemeal is a highly cost-effective source of rumen-bypass protein.

“There are some great opportunities available at the moment to significantly increase IOFC through improved feeding and feed choice, including maximising the use of grazing,” Mr Scott concludes. “Just make sure you’re keeping an eye on the medium and long term implications, not just focusing on short term gains.

“Get the balance right, though, and the overall gains in profitability can be substantial. It’s certainly likely to be greater than any increase in milk price we’re expecting to see this summer.”

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