Ten steps to more efficient rations that lower feed costs

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Length: 808 words; 4-5 minutes

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With feed costs (including forages) on the most efficient Holstein Friesian dairy units under 10ppl, it’s clear that within the typical 12-15ppl range seen on the majority of farms there’s substantial profitability being lost.

“Incorrectly designed or presented rations, for example, can increase feed costs by 1.5-2.5ppl due to inefficient digestion and utilisation or reductions in milk yield and quality,” states KW nutritionist Dr Matt Witt. “For 200 cows averaging 30 litres/day, that’s worth £15,000 during the first 100 days of lactation alone.”

“…it’s critical…rations…produce milk as cost-effectively as possible.”

Since half the cow’s milk is produced in those first 100 days, it’s critical that early lactation rations in particular produce milk as cost-effectively as possible. Here are ten key factors Dr Witt highlights as critical to producing efficient rations.

1) Dry matter content

Encouraging intakes of 22-25kg DM/day is essential, and ration dry matter can have a major impact. Best results are typically achieved when ration moisture is around 45-50%, swapping dry feeds like rolled cereals for moist or liquid feeds such as Traffordgold or Molale, and adding water if necessary.

Some farms are achieving good results with ‘compact feeding’, where moisture levels can be as high as 64%, but ration palatability and balance are even more important at this low DM.

2) Energy density

Correct ration energy density is also critical. Aim for 11.8-12.2MJ ME/kg DM, but without triggering digestive disorders or raising feed costs per litre. Ration design is always a balancing act, so start with the forage, then select complementary high energy feeds that create the necessary balance between starch, sugars, fats and fibre.

Good examples include the 14.5-15.5MJ ME/kg DM confectionery and bakery blends (SugaRich Dairy, Formula One), which supply a mix of energy sources and are also great value.

3) Forage quality

Early lactation rations typically contain 75-80% forage on a fresh basis (40-50% of the DM), and the higher the forage quality – in terms of nutrient content, smell and storage stability – the better.

Forage dry matter intake can range between 9-14kg DM/day, so monitor silage stocks regularly to ensure enough of the best quality forage is kept back for early lactation rations.

4) Starch content

Starch plays an essential role in supplying fermentable energy to drive rumen microbial activity. Too little undermines rumen function, lowers milk and milk protein production, and reduces fertility. Too much will cause digestive upsets and lower butterfats.

“…consider using rumen-friendly sources like…SodaWheat or maize meal….”

Total starch should be 14-23% of the DM, depending on how important milk solids are to milk price. At the higher levels, consider using rumen-friendly sources like caustic soda-treated wheat (Soda Wheat) or maize meal to reduce the risk of acidosis.

5) Fibre levels

Structural and digestible fibre are essential for good rumen function, balancing energy supply in the rumen and ensuring adequate milk fat precursors. If butterfats aren’t a priority, 32% NDF will be adequate in most cases, but those needing to boost fat production should aim closer to 36%.

6) Protein content

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ReguPro high-protein liquid feeds are an alternative to traditional proteins

Careful use of rumen-bypass protein can allow total protein to be as low as 16.0-17.5%.  Approximately 60-70% of the cow’s daily protein requirements come from the rumen in early lactation, so avoid oversupplying rumen degradable protein (RDP) which can increase milk ureas (linked to poor fertility) and waste energy processing the excess nitrogen.

Match protein feeds to forage type, utilising urea, rapemeal or high protein liquid feeds (ReguPro 50) to supply extra RDP alongside maize and whole crop cereal silages, and feeds containing more rumen-bypass protein (DUP, see below) to complement high grass silage rations.

7) Rumen-bypass protein

Typically, around 800-1,000g/day of ration DUP is needed to meet the cow’s daily protein requirement of 2,200-2,500g/day. Despite the relatively low price of soyabean meal, alternatives like heat-treated rapemeal (ProtoTec) continue to offer excellent value for DUP supply.

8) Mineral balance

Without supplementation, ration mineral and vitamin content will always fall short of requirements during early lactation, leading to reductions in milk production, milk quality, fertility, immunity and foot health. Including an appropriately formulated mineral / vitamin supplement, such as KW Complete Dairy, in every ration is absolutely essential.

9) Ration structure

Poor ration structure raises feed costs per litre by lowering feed intake, reducing digestion efficiency, increasing waste and cutting milk yield and quality. A good practical on-farm guide is to squeeze a handful of the mix – it should bounce back when released.

10) Water supply

Water is an essential part of the overall diet, and clean drinking water must be constantly available for all cows. Make sure dominant cows can’t block water access, troughs are easy to clean out at least weekly, and there’s a minimum 10cm trough space for every cow in the group (AHDB recommendations), which is enough for 10% of cows to drink at any one time. Typically, each cow will need about 100 litres per day.

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