Just a minor improvement in the milk yield from a kilo of feed has a significant impact on a farm’s financial results. So, it’s hardly surprising that the feed sector and the breeding world are both investing heavily in efforts to boost feed efficiency per farm and at cow level. This series of three articles in Veeteelt outlines the developments.
This is part 1: Feed
Robust data collection of the loaded and fed ration enables feed specialists to reveal feed efficiency at farm level. Feed efficiency is therefore not only an indicator of the optimal ration, but also gives insight into farm management in its totality.
‘The term feed efficiency has a very broad context. It covers the quality of roughage, feed management, cow health, genetics and housing. That makes feed efficiency such a key index for performance on today’s dairy farms.’ These are the words of Harma Berends, R&D manager Ruminants at Agrifirm. ‘But feed efficiency is also a collective term. There can be multiple factors that cause a negative deviation in this figure. This explains why feed efficiency is an extremely good starting point to critically scrutinize all the conditions necessary for an optimal ration.’
At feed cooperative Agrifirm, they note that growing numbers of farmers are aware of the significance of the feed efficiency index and are actively using it. ‘At herd level you get a good impression of what the ration actually delivers in terms of output. But accurate feed data collection is essential. In practice, it isn’t used enough yet in management decisions.’
Discrepancies of twenty percent
Bert Koppelmans, active at Topcon, formerly DigiStar, certainly knows a lot about mistakes in feed rations. ‘We see discrepancies between calculated and fed rations that are sometimes even as high as 20%. These are not deliberate errors, but the result of, for example, inaccurate feed weighing or incorrectly linking the number of cows to the calculated ration.’
Topcon markets the American feed management software TMR-Tracker, a system that accurately registers the loaded weight and feed ingredients and interfaces this data with farm management software for milk production and cow numbers to calculate feed efficiency. ‘The majority of farmers use a written ration sheet in the loader cab. But for real precision, you have to keep doing the sums in your head. That’s just impossible, especially when you are loading several different rations.’
An app on a smartphone or weighing indicator on the feed mixer can adjust the number of cows to be fed and/or the total weight when feeding starts. The quantity of feed ingredients to be loaded is then calculated automatically. ‘This ultimately delivers all the data that the feed adviser needs to review the performances together with the farmer at the kitchen table’, says Koppelmans.
Feed advisers make thankful use of the data, and according to Berends, the importance of these statistics will increase in the future. ‘The data can help unravel and reveal even more about feed efficiency’, she says. ‘With optimal feed conversion into milk, the ration must be calculated, weighed, mixed and digested properly. It’s crucial to use the roughage quality and cow health to steer towards maximum feed intake. Any mistakes at start of the chain – in this case, the roughage – will inevitably be reflected in the feed efficiency.’ Teun Sleurink, a nutritionist and independent adviser, has been collecting feed data for years with his own online system and uses feed efficiency to check the function of rumen fermentation. But he is also critical of the index figure. ‘The problem is that, like the feed costs per kilo of milk, you can’t base any decisions on it’, according to Sleurink. ‘Feed efficiency is derived from the milk yield figures; low feed efficiency is always the result of low production.’
According to Sleurink, farms should therefore also look closely at marginal feed costs. These are the costs of feed used to produce an extra kilo of milk, after all the feed costs for maintenance have been accounted for. ‘It takes 400 grams of dry matter to produce an extra kilo of milk, and the costs involved are at most 9 cents. If you factor in that a kilo of milk supplied to the dairy factory yields 34 cents, you are left with quite a nice margin for every extra kilo of milk. So, there is a short ROI on any measures that boost production and therefore feed efficiency.’
Relationship with milk production
Erik Dings, Technical Sales Manager Feed Additives at Denkavit, also agrees with the importance of correctly interpreting the index. ‘It is not about producing as much milk as possible from as little feed as possible, but more about maximizing how the cow utilizes the intake’, Dings says. ‘Cows with a negative energy balance sustain higher production on a lower feed intake. That might seem efficient but has serious impacts on cow health in the long term. A product like yeast activates the rumen flora to improve fermentation. This increases milk production converted from the existing ration.’
Denkavit markets ProRumen and claims an improvement in feed efficiency of up to 8% with this product. ‘It works especially well with rations that are digested less easily.’ But, according to Dings, the farmers most likely to use a yeast additive are also those who ‘enjoy the challenge of improving feed efficiency’. ‘Yeast is obviously not a magic ingredient that can solve every problem. Farmers who aim for good feed efficiency have to make sure that all the other conditions are right.’
What developments do the specialists see in the domain of feed efficiency? ‘New technology and better links will enhance the user-friendliness of data collection’, believes Koppelmans. Dings expects feed additives to play a lasting role in optimizing feed rations and Sleurink sees the index as the fundamental principle for insight into total management practice. ‘In the end, it’s the farms with the highest milk production that often achieve the best feed efficiency.’
Berends is also closely monitoring developments surrounding individual feed intake estimation. ‘More and more initiatives are emerging that collect or estimate feed intake data. Feed efficiency at cow level paves the way for feeding cows with more targeted and customized rations in the future.’
Danish and French cows have the highest feed efficiency
An international comparison report published by the International Farm Comparison Network (IFCN) has revealed that Dutch dairy cows produce an average of 1.3 kilos of milk with 4.0% fat and 3.3% protein per kilo of dry matter intake. The only herds that produce more milk per kilo of feed are found in Denmark and France. Both countries achieve feed efficiency of just over 1.4 because the rations are relatively rich in maize and concentrates. In the Netherlands, the proportion of fresh grass and silage in the ration is about 50%, in France and Denmark it is about 30%. In Ireland the proportion of fresh grass and silage is far higher at 80%. As a result, Ireland notes lower feed efficiency of less than 1 kilo of milk per kilo of dry matter. In the United States (California) and Australia, feed efficiency is similar to that of the Netherlands.