Fed up? Losing money? Start Tracking Feed Efficiency. The current lack of forages for dairy cattle in North America and high grain prices globally has brought feed front and center on most dairymen’s radar screen. Since for most herds feed costs vary between 50% to 60 % of the dairy’s operational costs, the current higher costs are narrowing on-farm margins. In some cases it has resulted in farms downsizing their milking herd, selling off their heifer herd and for some farms an exit from the dairy business. To say the least dairy farmers are having to address something foreign to most of them – the amount and cost of the feed their herd is consuming.

New Territory for Dairy Farmers

Given that dairy cattle breeding, to a very large extent, has ignore any genetic aspects to a cow’s ability to convert feed into milk, the idea of culling cows that do not convert well is an unheard of practice. Seeing that this subject is new to most breeders, The Bullvine decided to delve a little deeper into what is known and what investigation is underway when it comes to the efficiency with which cows convert their feed to products humans can consume.

Feed In. Dollars Out. It’s Hard to Capture FIDO.

It is costly and time consuming to capture individual cow feed consumption, so producers and their feed advisors have taken the approach of feeding the herd or groups within the herd and monitoring the production, feeds costs and the returns over feed costs. Only in research herds has there been any attention paid to individual cows and their efficiency of conversion or return over feed cost.  And then only for cows on feed composition trials and nothing on a cow or sire’s daughters genetic merit for feed conversion. So to put it simply the industry has said – feed them more, balance the diet differently, add some micronutrients, have adequate fibre in the diet, etc. because we have not been able to address the cow’s genetic ability to convert feed to milk.

What We Know about What’s Eating You

Some facts about feeds, feeding animals and feed costs include:

  • The poultry and swine industries have paid considerable attention, for quite some time now, to feed conversion / feed efficiency. With much success especially in      poultry meat industries. In beef and sheep feed conversion for animals being finished in feedlots is an important profit factor.
  • In dairy cattle, feed conversion ability includes all aspects – feeding for growth, production and maintenance.  We do not always think about the extra cost to grow heifers larger or to maintain a large versus a medium sized cow. By the way the Net Merit index does include a 6% weighting on cow size. And it is a negative weighting so larger cows are penalized for their extra size. So if you have been using the Net Merit index you will already be indirectly breeding for feed efficiency.
  • Level of milk production very much depends on the amount of feed consumed by a cow (commonly known as Dry Matter Intake). But we do not know the degree of correlation between volume consumed and feed efficiency.
  • Recent cost studies show that milking cow feed costs on individual farms vary from 20 to 35% of milk revenue. That variation is significant! So the opportunity to make progress in returns over feed costs is out there.
  • Given the wide variety of feeds and feed practices on dairy operations, an average feed cost per milking cow per day on individual farms can be anywhere from $4.00 to $8.00.
  • Every day dairy farmers have happen but do not monitor or comprehend differences in their cows’ ability to convert their diet into milk revenue. Depending on lactation numbers and stage of lactation a cow consumes 1 kg of dry matter to producer between 0.8 kg and 1.8 kgs of fat or energy corrected milk. Differences in milk, fat and protein production are monitored on-farm however cow differences in feed conversion efficiency are not.

Measuring the Future: You are What THEY Eat

Farmers and their nutritional advisors will continue to fine-tune the diets of cows. That’s a given. Gains in the returns over feed costs will be made by fine tuning diets and by adjusting the management and environments for cow and heifers.

However if the swine and poultry industries have been able to genetically enhance their species’ ability to convert feeds to meat or eggs, then is there not an opportunity for dairy cattle to also be bred for feed conversion efficiency?

It should be possible to breed for heifers that grow more efficiently and cows that convert feeds more efficiently into the milk needed to produce the products consumers want and will buy. If through more efficient milk cows there could be $0.33 more profit per cow per day, which amounts to an extra net income of $25,550 per year for a 200 cow milking herd. Nothing to be sneezed at.

From a Pile of Feed to a Pail of Milk?  Where’s the Genetics DATA?

However the challenge remains how to the get data for use in on-farm decision making and for determining the genetic difference between animals and bloodlines for feed efficiency. Well in fact there are some keen researchers in the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Australia in association with countries with national data bases used for genetic evaluation addressing this challenge. Currently they have studies underway to measure feed intake and cow outputs for cows on research trails. After obtaining the data they will correlate the efficiency results with the DNA (snips) makeup of the cows. In the USA alone there will be over 8,000 cows currently being studied.

Within a year the dairy industry can expect to see some preliminary results of this research work. But genomic indexes will only be the start. I expect that on-farm data capture software and systems will become available to measure a cow’s feed intake. The data from such systems will have value both at the farm level and at the genetic evaluation level.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Stay tuned for what will be new genetic evaluations and animal genomic indexes for feed conversion efficiency. It could take up to a decade for there to be accurate indexes and wide use made of the indexes but it will come fast once the basics building blocks are in place. Even a 5% gain in feed conversion efficiency in dairy cattle will be worth billions of dollars annually to the global dairy industry. Once again opportunity knocks at our doors.

Looking for more on Feed Efficiency check this out – Holstein vs. Jersey: Which Breed Is More Profitable?