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American Dairy Science Association looks at feed efficiency

PD Staff Published on 31 October 2013

At the end of September, the American Dairy Science Association held a Discover Conference on the topic of feed efficiency.

This was the 26th in a series of scientific gatherings designed to encourage in-depth discussion of issues related to food-animal agriculture.



The following industry experts were in attendance and provided their thoughts on information presented there and the discussion it generated.

• Charles Jamison, DVM, Technical Services Manager, Nutrition Physiology Company

• Chuck Sattler, Vice President of Genetic Programs, Select Sires

• Cari Wolfe, Director of Research and Genetic Development, American Jersey Cattle Association

What was the main take-home message for you from the conference?


JAMISON: For me, the interesting take-home was the review and re-emphasis of the complexity of inputs required for the calculation of an apparently simple number (units of output produced per units of input consumed).

We often get caught up in attaching significance to a number without taking the time required to understand what we are discussing and comparing.

This conference did a very good job of exploring the actual make-up of feed efficiency and the underlying variation behind a simple number we calculate and use every day in the dairy industry.

The other part of the take-home message, for me, was the obvious opportunities which exist on dairies for improving “feed efficiency” by improving management and consistency in all the processes involved in growing, harvesting, handling, storing, mixing, delivering and measuring of feedstuffs.

SATTLER: The focus for producers should be to maximize income over feed costs, not to maximize feed efficiency. The two complement each other in that more feed-efficient cows will help producers increase income over feed costs.

But breeding, feeding and other management decisions should consider the cost and benefits and, in the end, the option that is best for income over feed costs should be the one producers choose.


WOLFE: There are many ways to define and evaluate feed efficiency. Some focus on individual cow biology. Other methods are better suited for evaluating total enterprise efficiency. In essence, to improve efficiency you need to increase production, decrease metabolic body size and improve forage management.

What one thought did you have during the conference that had never occurred to you before?

JAMISON: The conference included some very interesting discussion of the potential for genomics to accelerate our understanding of genetic markers for efficiency of nutrient utilization. Increased understanding could lead to more useful tools to select animals for efficiency at a much more rapid pace in the future.

SATTLER: The one new thought I took away from the conference was the delicate balance between feed intake, passage rate and feed efficiency.

WOLFE: The emission of volatile organic compounds from silage and the associated loss of dry matter has a profound effect on dairy enterprise efficiency.

In your opinion, what is the lowest-hanging fruit to improve feed efficiency?

JAMISON: As I mentioned before, I think the low-hanging fruit in the question of improving feed efficiency and economic efficiency on many dairy operations is improvement in the management of feedstuffs, from growing all the way through to managing and optimizing intakes at the feedbunk level.

Many tools necessary to improve these processes are already available and only require increased understanding and effective implementation, which should include understandable and meaningful measurement and feedback to those involved in the processes.

Incremental improvements in managing ensiled feedstuffs from harvest to feeding to reduce spoilage and nutrient losses is but one example where opportunity exists to improve efficiency on many dairies. Similar opportunity exists for almost all the feeds which are utilized.

SATTLER: From a selection standpoint, the lowest-hanging fruit is to be more attentive to maintaining body size of our cattle. Body size is a very heritable trait, and the current selection practices are leading to bigger and bigger cows.

In addition, the rate in which body size is increasing is accelerating. Selection programs should continue to be aggressive at selecting for improved production (especially protein yield).

They should also include a fairly significant negative weight on body size so that a higher percentage of the nutrients go into production rather than into maintaining body mass.

Cow size needs to match producers’ facilities, and we don’t necessarily need a smaller cow, but slowing the trend of increasing body size clearly will improve producer profitability.

WOLFE: First, improve forage management through an enterprise audit, and second, analyze current and future breed choices using economic measures. PD

The 27th Discover Conference is scheduled for May 27-30, 2014, and will focus on strategies for improving U.S. dairy cattle welfare. Visit the website for more information about past and future conferences.