‘If breeding helps us create cows that convert feed into more milk, that’s interesting from a financial perspective and beneficial for the environment and the climate’, according to dairy farmer Thijs van Gastel. For a few months now, the feed intake of individual cows has been measured on his farm. ‘And we are already seeing huge variations’, he says.
In the feeding passage in the barn at Melkveehouderij van Gastel in Nispen, Brabant, the first thing you notice are 20 large blue feeder troughs. With a slight hiss, adjustable panels lower and lift to allow the cows controlled access to a complete feed ration. Displays show how much feed each cow eats at a feeder.
‘In cooperation with CRV, we have been studying the feed intake pattern of individual cows for some months’, explains 30-year old dairy farmer Thijs van Gastel. In partnership with his parents Gré and Anne-Marie, Thijs runs a farm with a herd of 150 high productive cows. The cows are milked by robots and produce a rolling annual average of 12,087 kilos of milk with 4.14% fat and 3.60% protein.
LESS MAINTENANCE FEED
‘We have always had the impression that certain cows convert feed into milk far more efficiently than others. You see the production of some cows really go into a downward spiral as the concentrate ration is reduced at the end of lactation, whereas the performance of other cows is unchanged’ he says, citing an example from practical experience.
‘We don’t have any firm figures on feed conversion rates yet, but the first raw data certainly seems to back up our ideas. Within the group, the feed intake varies between 40 and 80 kilos a day’, states van Gastel. ‘But there is no direct correlation with milk production. I see cows who produce more milk on a ration of 55 kilos of roughage than animals of a similar age, in a similar stage of lactation but who eat a ration of 75 kilos of roughage.’
Breeding to improve feed conversion is already possible. CRV includes the breeding value for saved feed costs for maintenance (SFCM, in euros per lactation) in the published details of all of its bulls. This breeding value is based on data gathered from thousands of cows on test farms. Its accuracy and reliability will increase as more figures on feed intake become available.
CRV is investing several million euros in systems that measure the feed intake of daughters bred by its bulls on five dedicated test farms. Breeding for the SFCM trait will result in cows that can maintain their body condition and support movement and digestion while utilizing less feed. This leaves more feed over to convert into milk production and the feed conversion rate will rise.
GOOD FOR THE CLIMATE
Since 2008, the farm run by the van Gastel family has acted as a test farm for heifers in CRV’s Delta nucleus program. In Nispen, animals with high genomic breeding values can prove their worth on paper in practical conditions. Cows that convert feed efficiently into milk are of great value for farmers in monetary terms, but also for the environment. And they produce less greenhouse gasses per kilo of milk. ‘More insight into the performance of bull dams in terms of feed conversion is a huge benefit’ concludes van Gastel.