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1007 PD: Capture the best of both worlds

Elliot Block Published on 27 September 2007

The saying goes, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Sometimes we’re faced with the tough decision of choosing one action or the other rather than getting everything we want. Fortunately, when it comes to making money and keeping cows healthy on your dairy, things aren’t as complicated. You can have your tasty treat, by reaping more profits in your milk check, and savor it too, by ensuring rumen health and good protein nutrition for your herd.

How is such a feat possible? By focusing on milk components, you can make financial gains from the additional pounds of fat and protein in the milk, while enjoying peace of mind when it comes to rumen health.

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If you’re not happy with component levels, the first place to focus is your feeding program. The main reason components suffer on dairy farms is directly related to nutrition, says Dr. Chuck Schwab, a professor of dairy nutrition in the Department of Animal and Nutritional Sciences at the University of New Hampshire. Although other factors may have an effect, reformulating the ration to ensure a healthy rumen and to balance amino acid levels can ultimately lead to higher milk components.

The power of protein

When it comes to improving protein levels, Schwab focuses diligently on increasing the lysine and methionine in absorbed protein (i.e., metabolizable protein), two of the most limiting amino acids. By balancing the ration for appropriate amino acid levels, some producers have seen as much as a 10 to 12 percent increase in protein production, Schwab says. Feeding adequate levels of these amino acids means supplying them at a rate of 6.6 to 6.9 grams per 100 grams of absorbed protein for lysine and 2.2 grams per 100 grams of absorbed protein for methionine. At these levels, the highest production and protein levels are achieved per 100 grams of absorbed protein. Below these levels, protein and fat suffer. Above these values, milk protein and fat level off. (See Tables 1 and 2.)

The gains made by reformulating the ration can be significant, says Schwab. He has seen an improvement in protein percentage by as much as three-tenths of a point due to ration reformulation. Under the right circumstance, Schwab says farms can see a $0.60 to $0.80 increase in gross income per cow per day.

Other research studies have seen promising results, too. Cows supplemented with a dairy feed ingredient with both a bypass fat and bypass methionine source increased milk protein by 0.05 percentage points and raised milk fat by nearly one point, even as milk production increased by 3.7 pounds per day.

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Feed the right stuff

There are many sources of lysine that can be used to boost protein. Blood meal and fish meal are the richest sources of lysine followed by soy products and canola meal. For methionine, Schwab recommends an effective rumen bypass source of methionine to meet the desired concentrations of methionine in absorbed protein. By increasing concentrations of lysine and methionine in absorbed protein to optimum levels, more efficient use is made of the other amino acids absorbed by the small intestine.

There are at least two benefits to improving protein levels. If you get paid for high component milk, improving protein generates more cash for producing the same amount of milk. Rumen health is improved because you are playing to the rumen microbes’ strengths by providing the nutrients needed to produce high levels of protein.

There’s still more to be excited about when it comes to milk and component production, Schwab adds. You may have noticed in your own herd that when milk protein concentrations increase, milk yield often improves as well. This is because protein is hydrophilic, which means “water-loving.” If the mammary gland produces more protein, because of improved amino acid nutrition, milk yield may increase because there is a limit to how much protein concentrations can increase before more water is secreted. Because this is true, as cows produce more protein, they will also produce more pounds of milk. Schwab notes that his research has shown that cows are more apt to respond with more milk in early lactation rather than when they are in mid- or later lactation. You capture higher component pricing along with added milk, and results will show in the milk check. Focusing on amino acids in the ration can make this happen.

Focus on butterfat

Fat can be changed more significantly without fluctuations in milk production. This is because, unlike protein and lactose, fat is hydrophobic, which means it moves independently rather than with water.

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Because butterfat doesn’t need water to increase production, levels can be changed more readily by your feeding program. Acetate and butyrate, two volatile fatty acids (VFAs), are the precursors for milk fat production. These VFAs are byproducts of fiber digestion, meaning that high-fiber diets often result in higher milk fat levels.

On the other hand, a low fat test or an inverted fat-to-protein ratio is a good indicator of acidosis. Acidosis occurs when rumen pH drops, causing microbial death. Sore feet or laminitis, reduced cud chewing and poor production are also indicators of acidosis problems. Acidosis can have long-term effects on cow health, too. One case of acidosis in early lactation can reduce component production for more than three months.

Avoid an acidosis situation and improve fat test results by:

• Feeding the right ration.

A high-fiber diet (greater than 30 percent NDF, greater than 19 percent ADF) with adequate starch levels (18 to 22 percent) is just the trick for boosting fat. Providing a high-fiber source will help to produce the necessary VFAs that are precursors for butterfat.

• Proper mixing.

Overmixing feed creates smaller particle size, which can create multiple rumen problems. Cows need forage to stimulate cud chewing and saliva production, both of which are necessary for maintenance of rumen pH and rumen health. If particles are not long enough, cud chewing decreases, which can lead to acidosis.

After your total mixed ration (TMR) is placed in front of the cows, examine the particle length. Corn silage particles should be relatively the same even after mixing. Add alfalfa hay last to ensure particle length is maintained.

• Forage testing.

It’s important to know forage quality before building rations. Test new forages so you know the quality of fiber, protein and energy. Testing for digestibility can provide information on fermentable carbohydrates; lower levels may cause reduced milk fat.

Numbers can be deceiving

It’s important to know where your herd stands in regard to milk production along with milk protein and fat levels. These numbers can be deceiving when you’re making changes. For example, when milk production increases, it may be disappointing to see that protein and fat levels are constant. But look a little closer. If you’re focusing on the percentages, take a look at the actual pounds produced. Since milk pounds are increasing, that means more fat and protein are being produced to stay at the same percentages.

Financial implications

It may seem that these small changes in milk protein and fat will be hard-pressed to have a major effect on the money you’re actually getting back. Even if milk production remains steady, the financial gains seen in increased components will be a nice surprise in your next milk check. The example below is a comparison of two farms that make the same amount of milk from the same number of cows. By improving their components by only a few points, they will receive dramatically different milk checks each month.

Herd A

500 cows, produces 80 pounds per cow, 3.2 butterfat, 2.9 protein, 1.2 million pounds of milk per month

Butterfat: (1,200,000) (.032) = (38,400 pounds of butter fat) ($1.3431/lb) = $51,575.04

Protein: (1,200,000) (.029) = (34,800 pounds of milk protein) ($2.4388/lb) = $84,870.24

TOTAL: $136,445.28 per month

Herd B

500 cows, produces 80 pounds per cow, 3.5 butterfat, 3.1 protein, 1.2 million pounds of milk per month

Butterfat: (1,200,000) (.035) = (42,000 pounds of butter fat) ($1.3431/lb) = $56,410.20

Protein: (1,200,000) (.031) = (37,200 pounds of milk protein) (2.4388/lb) = $90,723.36

TOTAL: $147,133.56 per month

That’s a difference of $10,688 per month or $128,259.36 per year, just by increasing butterfat by .3 percentage points and milk protein by .2 percentage points. When amino acids are properly balanced, this is a simple feat.

By looking at the numbers, you can see why Schwab comments that improving milk components should be a no-brainer. The improved financial implications along with a functioning and healthy rumen are great reasons to continue making components a priority on your farm. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

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