Precision dairy feeding: Capture the nutrients

by Tamara Scully

Dr. John Goeser of Rock River Laboratories has been working to increase efficiencies in dairy feed costs by generating more data on the actual nutrients being fed from the bunker. For Goeser, it all starts with optimizing the information being analyzed. He spoke of the need for enhanced forage nutrient data on a podcast recorded earlier this year.

Testing the bunker feed once a month isn’t going to generate the kind of data that can help reduce feed costs without sacrificing milk. Instead, enough data need to be collected to find the trends in the nutrient variability of the stored feeds so adjustments based on actual nutrient content being fed can be made.

“There’s just no way that one pound alone can adequately represent that mammoth amount of feed,” Goeser said of the current way most sampling is done. Adding a little bit of replication in feed testing, to generate a little bit more information and generate trends in bunker variability, can gain feed efficiency on the farm.

Whether a dairy farmer is harvesting thousand-acre fields or a half-dozen 10-acre fields, the bunker is going to contain a whole lot of variation in nutrient levels, Goeser said. Piles are not uniform, despite layering and mixing of the feed. Sampling with increased frequency can capture the variations in nutrient levels which occur throughout the bunker. By testing samples from the bunk face two or three times per week, these trends in nutrient variability can be captured.

“The only way that we can determine how much variation we have, and then start to determine what the sources of variation are, is repeated testing, within a meaningful period of time,” Goeser said. Under-recognized nutrient opportunities that cows maybe didn’t show us in the bulk tank can be found with this enhanced sampling data. And that information can then translate into economic gains on the farm.

Financial Impact

True nutrient changes happening in the feed stuff that can be economically meaningful to us can be found by testing stored forages a few times per week and making adjustments, Goeser said.

These variations in nutrient content, which are currently overlooked, offer opportunities to create margins and increase profitability. Using the additional testing information to capture nutrient changes and change feeding strategies is one opportunity dairy farmers have to capture economic gains.

According to Goeser, a typical 500-head dairy spends $250,000 in corn silage costs annually. Enhancing the feed sampling and testing frequency would increase that cost by less than 2%, or $48,000, per year. But the data that additional testing would generate have the potential to significantly decrease the overall per cow feed costs on the dairy, and decrease the cost of making each hundredweight of milk.

With feed costs ranging from 35% – 60% of overall costs on dairy farms, increased bunker testing could uncover substantial margin opportunities.

For example, if frequent testing revealed an increase in the crude protein levels of soybean meal, a reduction in the amount of that meal being fed would result in a three- to five-cent per head per day savings in feed costs. Without regular testing, this variation would go unnoticed, and the cows would continue to be fed soybean meal at a higher rate.

“Why are we not investing a little bit more in generating a bit more information?” Goeser asked, particularly when that information could positively impact margins in the biggest cost area – feed costs – on the farm.

Other Feed Concerns

Another area which could provide substantial savings involves what isn’t digested by the cow. Fecal starch, or the amount of grain left undigested in the manure, is another lost economic opportunity.

“There is no reason for any corn grain to show up in dairy manure,” Goeser said.

While the old school thinking allowed for 2% – 3% of manure to be composed of this wasted corn grain, the top dairies today have numbers below 1%, he said. If fecal starch were to decrease from 5% to 1% on a 100-cow dairy, more than 50 bushels of corn would be saved per month.

An added benefit would be a reduction in nuisance birds feeding off of the fecal starch, bringing environmental and economic benefits as well.

An additional concern, said Goeser, is feed hygiene. The average dairy cow can digest about 65% of the TMR consumed. But efficiency of converting a nutritious diet into energy is decreased when a cow is sick. A clinically sick cow is robbed of much of the energy consumed, as it is lost to the activated immune system instead of being put into the production of milk or meat. A better understanding of nutrient loss in subacute cows could strengthen cow nutrition management, Goeser said.

Future of Nutrition

“Look for ways on-farm to simplify how we feed cows and how we generate revenue in the interest of just being more efficient in producing a hundredweight of milk” as cow diets and feeding move into the future, Goeser said.

He believes that not only does better nutrient content data need to be collected by dairy farmers, but that the meaningful data from all systems – breeding, activity and milk production as well as from enhanced feed testing – need to be consolidated and ultimately simplified into one dashboard. The dashboard would also have a decision-making component, to interpret this real-time information and help farmers make immediate management decisions based on the factual data.

This simplification will also affect how dairy cow diets are assessed as data from increased feed sampling and testing will result in a shift in focus from ration formulation to a better management of ration utilization.

“We’ve got good tools to formulate diets,” but moving forward, Goeser predicts the focus might shift to a different approach. “What are we supplying cows in just pounds per nutrients per day?”

You can listen to the full “Rumination” podcast at tinyurl.com/vd2v6e2t.

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