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Efficiency audits can identify ways to improve nutritionally

Special to Progressive Dairyman from Mary Grace Erickson Published on 07 August 2017

When it comes to nutritional efficiency, most dairies have room to improve. That’s the finding from Papillon Agricultural Company, a technology-based manufacturer of specialty nutritional products.

The company has deployed a targeted dairy initiative to identify opportunities within dairy operations to boost profits by managing more efficiently. During an 18-month period, the initiative’s project manager, Clayton Stoffel, audited the efficiency of 90 farms across the U.S. He examined the management and production trends on these dairies and identified key areas where most farms stand to gain.

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“Management goals have become increasingly efficiency-focused in recent years,” Stoffel said. “While traditionally we sought to push milk production by maximizing dry matter intake, there are limits to how much cows can consume and how much manure producers can handle. Improving nutritional efficiency is an effective goal because we can improve production despite these limitations.”

To quantify whole-farm efficiency, the initiative’s audits use a propriety efficiency index. The index describes the farm’s efficiency status in a single number by combining quantitative elements such as nutrient utilization efficiency with qualitative management observations to benchmark the dairy’s efficiency against others in the region.

Higher index scores indicate strong nutritional efficiency and low environmental emissions, while lower scores signal nutrient waste and the opportunity for efficiency improvements.

Index scores varied substantially among the farms audited, ranging from 64 to 90. “From the normal distribution of scores, it does not appear any efficiency plateaus exist. Producers should be able to improve efficiency continually,” Stoffel added.

When it comes to troubleshooting efficiency, four key areas stood out as ripe for improvement across the farms audited, regardless of farm size and geographic location.

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1. Nitrogen and phosphorus efficiency

Nitrogen and phosphorus efficiency are a ratio of the amount of each nutrient secreted in milk to the amount fed. Nitrogen efficiency ranged from 23 percent to 33 percent on the farms audited.

It is not necessarily ideal to maximize nitrogen efficiency because lowering dietary nitrogen too much can negatively impact milk production and components. Maintaining a level of 28 percent to 30 percent nitrogen efficiency is a good target for most dairies.

Phosphorus efficiency was mediocre on average, with most of the 90 farms falling between 30 percent and 40 percent. Theoretically, up to 60 percent phosphorus efficiency is achievable. Improving phosphorus utilization efficiency may become more important in the future as more pressure is put on dairies to reduce environmental emissions.

2. Crude protein and phosphorus deviation

Crude protein and phosphorus deviation are calculated as the percent difference in the nutrient level between the ration formulated and the ration fed. Stoffel noted improved feeding and mixing practices have done a lot to reduce variations in recent years, but many farms still stand to gain by re-evaluating their feeding and sampling practices.

“For the most part, farms in the dataset were meeting the crude protein deviation goal of less than 5 percent,” Stoffel said. “There were a few notable exceptions where poor feeders caused crude protein deviation to rise to above 20 percent.

On one farm with cows on two sites, feed added at the remote location was not being weighed. Inconsistent feeding practices like this hurt whole-farm efficiency.”

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Only a quarter of the farms in the analysis met the 5 percent goal for phosphorus deviation. Many common ingredients, particularly byproducts, are highly variable in phosphorus content, which makes phosphorus deviation difficult to reduce.

However, as environmental regulations increase, phosphorus deviation may become more of a concern. According to Stoffel, taking proactive steps to control it now will help farms prepare for tighter regulations.

3. NDF and starch digestibilities

The audits found a broad range in total tract neutral detergent fiber digestibilities, with some farms below 30 percent and others as high as 60 percent. This means for many farms, increasing forage quality in diets is an opportunity to increase efficiency.

Most of the 90 farms hit the goal of 97 percent for starch digestibility, so for the average farm there are not many opportunities there to increase efficiency. However, smaller farms tended to have slightly higher fecal starch levels, most likely because they are often unable to time harvest as precisely as larger farms.

These producers may want to consider working with custom harvesters or increasing storage time before feeding to improve starch utilization.

4. Management changes

Common management-related efficiency opportunities were overcrowded fresh pens and insufficient waterer space. Stoffel recommended reducing stocking density in fresh pens to less than or equal to 80 percent of stalls to increase both feed efficiency and milk quality.

Similarly, providing at least 3 linear inches of water access per cow is another simple fix that can have a big impact on herd performance.

“Small changes that tweak efficiency can translate to big increases in revenue when multiplied across the whole herd,” Stoffel said.  end mark

Mary Grace Erickson is an Indiana-based agricultural journalist. She provided exclusive reporting for Progressive Dairyman about the Dairy Efficiency Summit which was presented by Papillon Agricultural Company last year in Green Bay and Madison, Wisconsin.

Mary Grace Erickson
  • Mary Grace Erickson

  • Agricultural Journalist
  • Based in Indiana

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