By Larry Hawkins, PAS
It seems in these times everybody is talking about being more efficient. We want to spend less time and money getting things done. For many, the pandemic solved a big problem. Getting to work became a lot more efficient. Instead of spending 30 minutes or an hour fighting rush hour traffic and then another 15 or 20 minutes finding a parking spot, the commute is simply to the spare bedroom or by the fireplace. An hour or two has been saved! However, for most dairy farmers, working from home was always the case but It usually is not by the fireplace!
Efficiency signifies a peak level of performance that uses the least quantity of inputs to achieve the highest amount of output. This is straight out of my pocket dictionary – Google. Obviously, when we look at inputs for feeding a dairy (or beef) herd, 2021 looks scary! Purchased inputs of corn, soybeans and other protein sources, and of course, any equipment needs and fertilizers are taking a seemingly irreversible upward price trajectory. I am not much of a betting man, but if I were, I would bet that fuel is headed higher for at least the next 4 years. Most of this we cannot control; so we are left with being more efficient in their use.
For dairy cows, the metric for measuring efficiency is feed or milk efficiency. These interchangeable terms are simply the energy-corrected milk (ECM) produced, divided by the feed actually eaten. What is left out of this formula is body weight loss. A cow can be very efficient when she is milking fat off her back. Your nutritionist (or herd manager) is, at least, doing Body Condition Scoring on your cows to keep track of your herd’s weight gain or loss. If you are running cows across a scale, ensure it is being done at the same time of the day in relationship to both feeding and milking to maintain accuracy (VandeHaar (ARPAS,2021).
So, what can be done to make feeding your cattle more efficient? Here is a partial list of the suggestions from the experts:
1. Milk smaller cows.
2. Use genomics testing and breed cows to bulls high in “Feed Saved”.
3. Do not use a one-group TMR.
4. Feed more often.
5. Keep feed pushed up to the cows.
6. Do not overfeed starch.
7. Feed reduced-lignin alfalfa and BMR corn silage.
8. Eliminate sorting at the feed bunk by using proper particle size and/or water or molasses added to the TMR.
9. Use proper harvesting, storage, and facing procedures so that the vast majority of the feed gets fed; not wasted or spoiled.
10. Use direct fed microbials and other probiotics which aid in fiber digestion.
11. Many things have been proposed and found wanting, until somebody looks at it in another way; adds some research and reintroduces it!
12. Feed branched chain volatile fatty acids or BCVFAs (see #11 above!). Are any more of you old enough to remember Iso Plus®? I think there is still a parking lot full of ex-IsoPlus salespeople-driven cars being fumigated for resale! Well, BCVFAs are back.
Marginality and Overhead
The goal of virtually all the above strategies is to increase dry matter intake (DMI). This is largely a sound and a worthwhile endeavor. Money is made at the margins – at the first, at the most and in the case of dairy cows, at the next pound of feed you can get into your cows. This next pound of feed dilutes the maintenance cost of feeding cows or the “overhead”. The overhead cost of feeding dairy cows is, of course, maintaining her body weight, plus a possible pregnancy and in the case of primiparous heifers, the cost of growth to her future mature body weight. The rest of the feed then goes toward production. Therefore, your cow is your business, the maintenance feed is your overhead. The maintenance cost must be paid before the milk is produced. The rest of the feed is now your production cost.
There is one big problem with the assumed efficiency of the next pound of feed. At times, we are feeding prize-winning forages including BMR corn silage and reduced-lignin alfalfa such that the rate of passage (Kp) is so fast the rate of digestion (Kd) promised by the NDFD30 laboratory test is not accomplished. Then what we receive is more prize-winning manure! This is the result of the emphasis on the Kp at the expense of the Kd. In other words, we need deal with both the rate and the extent of digestion.
Let’s look at marginality in a different way!
Money is still made at the margins. For example, if we were judging cows, we can obviously say we want the widest rear udder attachment. However, we really do not want one that is 4 feet wide! The researchers in dairy nutrition say that we are not yet at the limit on dry matter intake (DMI) and I am sure that we are not. However, are we always gaining efficiency when we push for the “next” pound of feed as we push feed out of the rumen to make room for the next?
What we are seeing at Forage Innovations is a different way to reach for the production at the margin. Rather than reaching for the next pound of feed in the cow, why not reach for the next pound of milk in the feed?
Everyone in the beef or dairy cattle-feeding business has a tremendous cost in either producing and/or buying feedstuffs. It just makes sense to get more out of each pound of this feed rather than trying to feed higher levels of DMI, and therefore causing you to buy or produce much more feed! Feeding for both the rate and the extent of digestion instead of an overdependence on the rate of passage is a more direct path to your real goal – a better bottom line!
“Get the next pound of feed in the cow OR get the next pound of production from the feed?”
Our principle lies in work done at the WH Miner Institute (Grant, et al., 2008). This work is detailed in our report titled The New Normal, a Paradigm Shift in Dairy Nutrition. This report is available from our website, forageinnovations.guru under the tab “Free Resources.”
The trial compared feeding mid-lactation cows 4 diets. Corn silage (fed at 35 lbs. As Fed or 45 lbs. AF) and Sorghum-sudan (fed at the same amounts). Grain was a constant with the SxS diet allowed to contain much less starch and much more NDF. The corn silage diets were more nearly normal. The idea was to test how digestible NDF could replace starch. When the cows were eating the corn silage (CS) diet starch and NDF at closer to normal levels. DMIs for the SxS were well more than 10% less than the corn silage diets. However, the FCM milk was no different. The surprising thing to us was the cows gained weight on the sorghum diets but held constant weight on the CS diets. Again, the details are in the aforementioned report.
Although the above research was with mid-lactation cows, can we use the principle for high producing herds by tweaking the diets a little bit? Yes, we are seeing it done! The point is, we can continue to attempt to wedge more feed into our cows but lose the efficiency of a more complete digestion which can occur when BMR sorghums and improved cool season grasses are part of the diet. We have found the “sweet spot” to balance Kp and Kd where we can reduce DMI 5 to 10% and still maintain Energy-Corrected Milk at high production levels. We solve this with forage choices, not purchased inputs.
To make all this happen, we work with your current agronomist and nutritionist to ensure that we are all on the same page. For some, growing and feeding these crops is a new experience, and we want to try to identify and avoid sticking points. When the few disappointments occur, they usually result from preventable mistakes. We want to help you improve your bottom line and it is in our best interests to help you. Let us be clear. Doing things to increase DMI are things we all should do. However, when you have done these things, choosing forages which slightly increase retention time and thereby increase digestibility will yield remarkable results