Farming Magazine - December, 2013


Dairy Nutrition: Getting With the Program

By John Hibma

Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA-ARS, via Ellmist/Wikimedia Commons.

A couple years ago, Cornell educator Dr. Dale Bauman published a paper describing how much more efficient agriculture in general and the dairy industry in particular have become since the 1940s. Up until the middle of the last century, the average American farmer produced enough food for just 15 people. Today, that farmer produces enough food to feed 150 people. In 1944, the average U.S. milk production per cow was less than 5,000 pounds of milk per year. Today, the average milk cow produces over 20,000 pounds of milk per lactation. In recent years, the total number of milk cows in the U.S. has remained about the same - about 9.5 million - while the total amount of milk produced continues to increase. Feeding efficiencies - the conversion of feed to milk - have improved by over 400 percent.

Even though much of the improvement in milk production efficiency is directly attributable to American ingenuity, inventiveness and our penchant for modernization, much of it is also due to an outdated national milk pricing policy that has forced dairy farmers to continually increase herd sizes in pursuit of improved economies of scale, as well as the dairy industry's reluctance to actively engage in a global market for dairy products. Much of it is also due to the overarching trend of all businesses to continually seek higher profits. Most dairy farmers are continually seeking out new ways to improve efficiency to keep from going broke.

The modern dairy farmer must create and follow a feed program that strategizes and plans for how much milk must be produced on the dairy farm to "cash flow" the business. They should be balancing feed rations and making feed purchases with a certain amount of milk production in mind. They should not be purchasing feeds based just on price or with the notion of "let's cross our fingers and hope this works."

The cost of feedstuffs rose abruptly last year due to an unprecedented drought in the Midwest and increased global demand. However, as I write this column at the end of September, the 2013 corn crop is looking excellent, and the price of corn has dropped significantly. It's tempting to think that this may give us a little breathing room as the cost of feeding our cows decreases a few cents, and maybe we might even chance feeding a couple more pounds of corn and see what happens.

Dairy farmers must purchase feedstuffs knowing the nutrient profiles and how much milk production they can expect or the rate of gain that will result from those feedstuffs. Much more care must be taken in matching the correct form of energy with the correct form of protein. Rates of carbohydrate solubility and fermentability must be matched with available amino acids. Above all, rumen and gut health must be optimized in order for cows to reach peak milk production and sustain it.

At the heart of programmed nutrition is how well feedstuffs are converted into milk while maintaining optimal rumen and gut health. Every pound of feed consumed by milk cows should produce a targeted amount of milk on a fat-corrected basis. To put it another way, how much bang are you getting for your feed buck?

Dairy producers should have milk cow feeding efficiency (FE) ratios of 1.5 to 1 at the very least. For every pound of dry matter a cow consumes, she should produce at least 1.5 pounds of fat-corrected milk. If she eats 40 pounds of dry matter, her production should not be less than 60 pounds on a 3.5 fat-corrected basis. The higher you can push the FE number, the better the rumen is working. With the nutritional tools currently available, it's not impossible to see FE ratios close to 2 to 1 in high-producing fresh cows. Dairies with ratios of less than 1.5 to 1 are leaving money on the table.

In order to optimize FE, the cow and her rumen must be healthy. Cows, however, make life complicated because the diet they consume must satisfy both the rumen and whole-body nutritional and metabolic requirements. The majority of a cow's dietary energy comes from carbohydrates, which come in the form of starches and sugars that are rapidly degraded in the rumen, as well as complex carbs such as the cellulose found in forages.

Carbohydrate fermentation is totally dependent upon rumen microbes. In order for those microbes to flourish, the all-important fiber mat must be present to help maintain proper pH level and prevent acidosis. It has been well understood for years that energy (megacalories) is most often the limiting nutrient in high-producing dairy rations. The goal should be to provide a diet that maximizes rumen microbe activity so they can synthesize adequate levels of energy for the cow's metabolism.

The challenge for properly programming nutrition on the dairy operation exists at a number of levels.

1. Providing accurate and timely analyses of feedstuffs, especially forages. Many dairies will find they have high variability in the quality of forages over the course of a year. Fiber digestibility and protein solubility can vary considerably, and rations must be adjusted to accommodate for them.

2. Feed delivery systems. Dairies both small and large must be able to consistently and accurately weigh and deliver rations to their cows.

3. Dry matter intakes. To stay on top of diets, milk production, milk components and feed costs, dairies must know how much their cows are eating. Dry matter intakes must be accurate to within a pound. Being 2 or 3 pounds off on intakes will miss the intended nutritional target by a mile.

4. Moisture content of feeds. Silage dry matter levels can vary considerably in a pile or silo. Being off by 5 or more percentage points on moisture will also have a dramatic impact on what you think you're feeding versus what you really are feeding.

As total dairy operating costs continue to climb and become a greater challenge, focusing on feeding efficiencies and accurate balancing of diets will become imperative for the U.S. dairy industry if it wants to remain viable domestically as well as in the global marketplace.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Cooperative Farmers Association in Manchester, Conn.