Marginal Nutrition

By John Hibma

I'm sure almost everyone has heard this old expression: "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." Essentially, the phrase means we can't expect to make something of high value when we try to make it out of low-value or substandard materials. Along those same lines, we all know that "You can't get something for nothing" and "You get what you pay for" - at least in an honest society. Even a lottery winner has to spend a little bit of money before she can win the big prize.

In agriculture, if you want healthy fruits and vegetables, you have to fertilize them. If you want your chickens to lay lots of eggs, you have to feed them the right diet. If you want your cows to give you lots of milk, you also have to feed them the correct diet, and skimping on energy and protein most of the time will lose you more milk than what you're saving on feed costs.

One of the most confounding aspects of dairy farm management and feeding programs that I've encountered over the years is finding the most profitable or optimal level of milk production for a dairy herd. Do we try for 25,000 pounds of milk in a free-stall Holstein herd, or do we go for 14,000 pounds in a herd of Jerseys being rotationally grazed on pasture? Milk production in all dairy cows is nearly completely dictated by nutrient consumption.

I'm often asked the question that goes something like this: "Is it more profitable to push cows harder to produce more milk when you know they'll be eating more feed and feed costs will go up?"

Even though I can show you that cows producing 90 pounds of milk are a whole lot more profitable in spite of eating more feed than cows producing, say, 50 pounds of milk, every dairy farmer has to determine that optimal level of production that will pay the bills and keep them in business. Dairy farmers look at feed inputs almost as if they're only one step away from the nightshade family - poisonous and deadly. They spend an inordinate amount of time looking for ways to reduce feed costs in absolute terms rather than searching for ways to improve feeding efficiency and getting optimal levels of nutrients into their cows.

Feed efficiency is a ratio of milk produced from a unit of feed. As a general rule, the more milk a cow produces, the more efficiently she produces it. Once maintenance requirements are met in a diet, almost all of the feed consumed goes toward milk production. A prevailing belief in our industry is that pushing for more milk production is usually a break-even deal at best, and more often than not will end up costing the dairy farmer money. I disagree.

A Holstein cow weighing 1,500 pounds must consume about 1.5 to 2 percent of her body weight - about 23 to 30 pounds of dry matter - just to meet maintenance nutrition. The feed consumed will currently cost about $3 per day to feed that cow. Once a cow's maintenance needs are met, the calories and protein consumed after that will be used for milk production. However, there's always going to be a cost associated with maintenance, and a certain amount of milk production must go toward paying for that cost.

The tricky part of feeding cows today is getting the most milk, along with milk components, for each incremental or marginal increase in feed consumed. Much of a cow's potential for milk production is determined by the stage of her lactation. Is she just fresh, with the most potential for milk production, or is she over 200 days in milk and carrying a large calf?

Trying to attain the best feeding efficiency in a herd of cows can be challenging. On one hand, milk production essentially determines how much a cow will eat. On the other hand, if you don't feed her enough, she won't produce the milk you're hoping for.

In today's economic environment of milk prices and feed costs, a feed efficiency ratio of 1.5-to-1 is almost essential. That means, on a 3.5 percent fat-corrected basis, if your cow is eating 40 pounds of dry matter, she had better be producing 60 pounds of fat-corrected milk (FCM). If she's eating 60 pounds of dry matter, she had better be producing at least 90 pounds FCM.

Turning it around and looking at it the other way, if your cows are averaging 75 pounds FCM, then they shouldn't be eating more than 47 pounds of dry matter in order to maintain a feeding efficiency ratio of at least 1.5-to-1. If you're only getting 50 pounds FCM from your herd, they shouldn't be eating more than 33.3 pounds of dry matter. Unfortunately, the less milk cows produce, the less efficient they are in producing it, and they tend to eat more feed, which drops the feeding efficiency below 1.5.

As milk production increases, it's important that feed costs are kept in line. For example, if the feed cost for a cow increases by 10 cents per cow per day, then there had better be at least 10 cents' worth of extra milk produced. Ideally, it should be double that amount to make the investment worthwhile. Conversely, to expect additional milk production from a cow, there must be an increase in feed consumption and, therefore, feed costs.

If nothing else, modern dairy farming is all about cows producing milk. Even though our industry is going through some difficult times, cows must still produce revenue to justify their existence. Continually cutting feed costs, as tempting as it may be, will eventually result in poor-producing cows, and poor-producing cows are a sure bet for financial ruin over the long run. Balanced milk cow diets that make the most out of every pound of feed consumed should continue to be a high priority for dairy farmers as the volatility of feed and milk prices continues into the foreseeable future.

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