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0107 PD: Feed conversion monitoring: Key to increased profits

Elliot Block Published on 10 January 2007

For dairy producers wishing to improve their profitability, the first feed investment that needs to be made in improving milk production is dry matter intake (DMI) conversions, says Marvin Hoekema, president of Dairy Decisions Consulting, LLC, in Visalia, California. The reason is these conversions are 40 to 50 percent of a dairy operation’s budget, “meaning there is real money on the table.”

“Dairies are really in three core businesses: land, feed conversion and cultivating a heifer replacement stream,” explains Hoekema. “As such, getting the appropriate energy density and intake levels into the cows that is sufficient to support milk volumes, metabolic health and superior reproductive performance is really what drives the dairy boat,” he says.

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Hoekema conducts dairy business and financial management consulting on dairies nationwide. He also has a high level of international experience, particularly in Australia.

Milk-to-feed conversion is measured by dividing pounds of milk produced by pounds of dry matter (DM) consumed for a given time period, Hoekema explains. The range that conversions fall into is very region (and season) dependent. To use conversions effectively, feed managers must measure consistently, look for trends and compare within each herd for conversion levels.

“I am more concerned when the 14-day moving average of milk-to-feed conversion falls from 1.35 to 1.2 and management cannot explain why it has changed,” he says.

“Trends in daily dry matter intakes are more relevant than actual milk-to-feed conversions (given cow health issues, etc.). That is not to say that conversions are not important here; it is important to know when and how much conversions are moving up or down. I prefer to measure conversions on a global basis (whole milking herd), then look at intakes and pen milk weights (if available) to see where core variation is occurring,” Hoekema says.

“Producers can track conversions easily by using a base feed-tracking program, such as TMR Tracker® or FeedWatch. Also effective are daily feed sheets with weigh-back recording coupled with daily herd milk weights. I pull tracker data to match with milk shipments into a custom database to track the data on a biweekly basis,” Hoekema explains.

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Ensuring cows achieve optimum rumen performance can certainly have a positive influence on DMI and feedstuff utilization. Including a rumen fermentation enhancer in your cows’ rations will help them achieve optimum rumen performance.

A transition-specific rumen fermentation enhancer, fed in close-up rations, can help cows through the whole transition process, stabilizing the rumen and improving microbial protein production to help reduce metabolic disorders and help cows maintain DMI. Rumen fermentation enhancers also help cows throughout lactation, allowing microbes to become more efficient and grow in numbers, stabilizing the rumen to help improve DMI and nitrogen utilization.

Helping cows achieve positive DCAD levels throughout lactation is another key to maximizing DMI. A feed-grade potassium carbonate, fed in all lactating rations throughout the entire year, provides a potassium source that helps cows maintain blood buffering capacity to enhance DMI and milk components, along with overall productivity.

Forage quality has long-term impact
A second way to improve profitability related to feeding is “relentless attention to forage quality,” Hoekema says. “This applies to both raised and purchased hay but also to the quality of corn for silage. The levels of ADF and NDF in the feed not only affect the level and ability of dry matter intake, but because most dairies purchase and harvest forages in large quantities, the impact of challenged fiber levels (extremely high or low ADF or NDF) will impact conversions for months to a year at a time,” Hoekema explains. “The length of effect is what makes attention to fiber levels so important, as there is a material amount of working capital tied up in forage quality or the lack thereof – meaning it is significant and worth paying attention to.”

“Effective dairy business managers focus on forage quality and on improving feed conversions on a daily and weekly basis. That is where most of the money is on the dairy, so that’s where the effort should be spent,” Hoekema says.

A third area of focus tying feed investments on the dairy to boosting the bottom line is “top-tier bunk management practices,” adds Hoekema. Feed managers achieving excellence in bunk management do the following:

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•Do daily DM testing of wet forages and log the DM results.
•Perform a daily weigh-back recording.
•Do bunk reads at each feeding shift and discuss these with staff to receive input and make necessary changes.
•Track intakes on a daily basis. Chart and post for all staff and management to see.
•Make incremental feedbunk changes. Dramatic changes would result in shifts in intake patterns that are difficult to gauge for results and feed and manage for intake levels.
•Check for sorting potential (with a shaker box) and evaluate bunks for actual sorting weekly.
•Maintain consistent DM levels in fed recipes. With weather changes, this can change the moisture level substantially in the bunk, even in controlled freestall barns.

Test the DM of the feed in the bunk mid-point in feeding at least weekly to see the effective DM level in the bunk. On dry days, Hoekema has seen as much as a 10- to 15-point drop in moisture levels in the bunk.

Combining an “effective feed and milk price risk management marketing program, with attention to feeding conversions, bunk management and forage quality will yield approximately 40 percent of the 25 percent confidence interval for milk price,” says Hoekema. This is the price level which occurs 25 percent of the time or higher for a three- to five-year time period.

Make informed feeding decisions
Hoekema is very surprised that milk-to-feed conversions are not used more widely on dairy operations. “Unless you know how ingredient investments are going to impact conversions, and then measure and evaluate the results, you are not making an informed decision,” he says.

“For instance, making a feeding decision without measuring milk-to-feed conversions is working blindly with the financial performance of that decision. If conversions are not measured, it is difficult to know if an improvement or degradation in feed expense per hundredweight (cwt) of milk sold is due to the decision, changes in pricing, changes in intakes, production or a combination of everything,” Hoekema explains.

“Only through measuring daily intakes does the feeding decision become a more informed one,” says Hoekema. Knowing daily intakes also arms the manager with historical data through which effective comparisons can be made. For example:

•How did this year’s corn silage crop feed compare to last year’s crop?
•What was the effect of the investment in new storage facilities on ingredient shrink, utilization and pricing?
•Did the increase in DMI result in better production to improve conversion, did it stay the same or did it drop?

Tracking daily conversions essentially records the operational effectiveness of 40 to 50 percent of the business’ budget, which is real money. For example:

8 cents per pound DM cost, 50 pounds DMI

Conversions: 1.3 milk-to-feed = 65 pounds milk sold, $6.15 per cwt milk sold feed expense

1.35 milk-to-feed = 67.5 pounds milk sold, $5.93 per cwt milk sold feed expense

“That may not seem like much, but it is nearly $80,000 per year for someone shipping 3 million pounds of milk per month,” Hoekema says. PD

Marvin J. Hoekema
President, Dairy Decisions
Consulting, LLC

To contact Marvin, e-mail him at or call him at (559) 625-3862.

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