Driving feed efficiency to cut costs? It’s not just feeding that matters

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Length: 811 words; 4-5 minutes

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With the best milk producers achieving total feed costs of less than 10ppl, and the worst nearly double that, more efficiently utilising feed to support milk output and fertility can have a huge impact on margins. Here, KW nutritionist Dr Matt Witt outlines eight areas that commonly prevent high levels of feed efficiency.

1) Cow health and comfort

The most efficient cows are healthy, comfortable and relaxed, and any stress which alters feeding behaviour will reduce feed efficiency. Typical examples include excess weight loss, sub-clinical and clinical health disorders (mastitis, acidosis, metritis, ketosis) and physical discomfort (lameness, overcrowding, prolonged standing, poor lying comfort). Inconsistent or aggressive handling, sudden movements and loud noises should also be avoided.

In a Spanish study across 47 herds with similar genetics fed the same total mixed ration (TMR), differences in cow comfort accounted for more than half (56%) of the 13 litres/cow variation in daily milk yield. Continuous improvement is the key, working with farm staff, vet and nutritionist to minimise every potential stressor.

2) Hygiene

Cows are highly sensitive to the level of hygiene – or lack of – in their environment. Passage-ways left un-scrapped, old deteriorating feed and contaminated water troughs will all have a negative impact, as will poor building air flow, dirty cubicles and inadequate lighting (below 160 LUX).

By altering feeding behaviour, all can reduce feed efficiency and result in listless cows that perform well below potential. So pay close attention to working routines and look to improve the cows’ environment wherever practically possible.

3) Dry cow management

Dry cow management sets the baseline for lactation performance. During the four weeks pre-calving in particular, good ration design is essential if cows are to enter the herd able to convert high intakes of feed efficiently into milk, and remain free from metabolic and health problems.

Sub-clinical issues resulting from poor dry cow management may not be visibly obvious, but will be restricting intakes and reducing feed efficiency post-calving. High bulk, controlled-energy rations supplying the right nutrient balance are the key to correctly conditioning the cow and the rumen for the transition into lactation.

4) Forage production and management

Rations containing poor quality forage will always reduce feed efficiency. Attention to detail across every aspect of forage production – grazing, ensiling and storage – is therefore essential, with mixed forage rations used most efficiently.

Keep swards free from weeds, using regular reseeding and careful management of sward height, cutting dates, grazing frequency and stocking density to retain grass quality. Complement grazing with a correctly designed buffer feed to balance nutrient supply.

5) Ration design

With ration design, correctly balanced nutrient supply is the key to both an efficient rumen fermentation and accurately meeting cow requirements. Key indicators include dry matter, energy density and fibre levels, as well as protein, starch and sugar supply.

Appropriate inclusion of rumen-protected fats (Butterfat Extra, Goldenflake), rumen-bypass proteins (SoyPass, ProtoTec) and a quality vitamin / mineral premix will also aid efficiency, as can higher intakes of either forage or any mixed ration. Maximise intakes by using moist (Traffordgold) and liquid feeds (Molale, ReguPro 50) to increase palatability, make feed freshness, presentation and access a priority and regularly monitor manure quality to help identify any challenges to rumen function.

6) Water

Often overlooked, water is a key nutrient – milk is 87% water and water is critical to efficient rumen function and nutrient utilisation. High intakes of clean, fresh water are essential – early lactation cows need 100-140 litres/day in addition to the water consumed in feed – and any restriction will drastically reduce feed intake and feed efficiency, increasing costs by as much as 2-3ppl.

Cows prefer to alternate eating and drinking, so place troughs close to feeding areas and ensure a minimum of 0.5-0.6m2 per 20 cows. Troughs can quickly become contaminated with feed, so consider tipping designs that can be more regularly emptied.

7) Farm infrastructure and layout

Building design and positioning, yards, tracks and gateways can all add to the burden on the cow and negatively affect feed efficiency, whether acting directly (time away from feed) or indirectly (increased stress).

Some changes require longer-term planning, but problems with feed barrier access, lighting or gateways are more easily tackled. Remember that many small changes can have a cumulative effect – even a 5% improvement in feed efficiency could save 0.6-0.8ppl, worth £1,200-1,600/month for a typical 200 cow herd1.

8) Heat stress

Any time temperatures get above 20°C with high humidity (in direct sunlight or crowded yards, and not just in summer), cows will look to reduce heat production by cutting intakes (particularly of forage). This disrupts rumen fermentation and reduces feed efficiency.

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SodaWheat is a good source of starch energy that will also help buffer rumen acidity.

If cows show signs of increased respiration or panting, increase access to shade, and look to boost ventilation or reduce stocking density if housed or waiting to be milked. Raise ration energy density to maintain nutrient supply, using rumen-protected fats, digestible fibre (sugar beet feed, soya hulls) or caustic soda-treated wheat (KW Sodawheat) to reduce the risk of acidosis. Rumen modifiers such as live yeasts (Vistacell) are also proven to help maintain feed efficiency in hot and humid conditions.

1 Based on a 200 cow milking herd averaging 33 litres/day.

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