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Reducing the cost of producing a pound of milk

Kevin Tuck Published on 22 March 2010

The most dramatic year in the dairy business in living memory, 2009, has turned dairy farmers’ attention worldwide to the ever-present issue of the cost of producing a pound of milk. Of paramount importance is making this reduction without incurring any adverse effect on the health or fertility of the cow.

The initial response from the dairy producer in 2009 was to reduce feed input costs. Unfortunately that has resulted in a situation where health and fertility has suffered dramatically and refocuses the mind on thinking more “outside the box.”

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There are a number of different options one can take to try and achieve this reduction in milk production costs while at the same time incurring no adverse effect on fertility. In this article I would like to discuss three such options that are available immediately to producers finding themselves in this situation.

Strategy 1: More milk from the same feed
If the dairy cow can achieve more complete digestion of its existing inputs, both feed and forage, we can accomplish the goal as set out above. However, in our efforts to do so we have historically incurred the adverse effects of extended open days or other metabolic disorders. Every dairy producer worldwide is conscious of the fact that there is a certain amount of their total ration passing through the animal undigested. This is both an undesirable additional cost and contributes to the overall problem of environmental pollution.

Numerous researchers around the world have spent a number of years focusing on feeding strategies and new technologies which can help to overcome this dilemma. The key is to focus on allowing the cow access to more nutrients in the feed through more efficient rumen function. This produces a situation where the cow is required to take less from her own body condition. This lies at the foundation of those fertility and health issues.

Numerous studies of yeast culture have shown that it is possible to release additional nutrients, allowing the animal to more cost-effectively convert its total intake into milk at a higher level, thereby reducing the cost per pound of milk. A number of these studies have also investigated the effect that this has on the cow in terms of mobilizing body condition and they have shown that the fertility of the cow has improved significantly when this additional release of nutrients has been achieved.

The key to understanding these results lies in the fact that yeast culture technology has allowed the cow’s rumen to remain in its most efficient zone of digestion for longer periods of the day, thus achieving improved rumen efficiency. This gives us higher feed efficiency, which ultimately leads to more cost-efficient milk production. This is achieved without incurring any negative effect on the health and fertility of the animal, as there is less need for the cow to take from her own body reserves.

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Strategy 2: Adjusting the forage-to-feed ratio
Being able to increase the amount of home-grown, less costly, forage instead of the more expensive purchased feedstuffs such as soya or canola has long been the preferred method of input cost reduction. Due to the difficult nature of growing our own forage, concentrate feeding is the only way to maintain a high level of milk production. However, it is widely accepted that the dairy cow would prefer more forage in her diet as this enhances her rumen health and, consequently her metabolic condition.

To understand how such a change could be achieved, it is important to understand the process by which these expensive protein sources break down and release ammonia to feed the rumen and keep it at maximum efficiency. Recent research from around the world has resulted in the production of technologies such as slow-release non-soluble protein products which are a concentrated form of nitrogen. This allows for the removal of the bulkier feed proteins, with their replacements creating additional space in the total ration. The newly created free space can then be filled with the required home- grown forage, resulting in additional milk production from a diet which is cheaper to produce.

In summary, we can now include up to two kilos more corn silage in the diet at the expense of the more costly soya and by doing so not only reduce the cost of the diet but allow the animal to achieve its proper potential. On average, this shows an increase of over 3 pounds of milk per day. This becomes the ultimate rumen-friendly diet and satisfies the second criteria of not incurring any additional negative effect on health and fertility.

Strategy 3: Reducing the health and fertility cost
Dairy farmers across the world constantly struggle to control metabolic disorders such as lameness, mastitis and ultimately, fertility. These issues are a constant draw on resources and contribute significantly to the overall cost of producing a pound of milk. Therefore, any significant reduction in these costs allows the producer to achieve the twin goals of cheaper milk production and greater health.

The foundation of these problems begins in the dry period. Appropriate dry mineral supplementation programs can significantly decrease these conditions, thereby reducing the overall costs of the cow’s yearly production of milk.

The advent of organic chelated minerals, in addition to selenium yeast, has opened major possibilities in reducing these conditions in any cow across the globe. Recent studies conducted in numerous research centers around the world have shown that our historical methods of supplying trace elements to address these issues are very unsatisfactory and may actually be contributing to the overall problem. The research now gives confidence to feed formulators to completely replace trace elements such as copper, zinc, manganese and selenium with their newly developed organic form and have shown savings of up to $80 per cow in the subsequent lactation, mainly due to reductions in these metabolic disorders.

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Another area of great concern to milk producers is the news that the 2009 U.S. corn harvest is reported to carry the heaviest burden of mycotoxin contamination ever recorded. This has the potential to drive down rumen efficiency and poses a serious health risk. Technology has delivered an antidote to this worry in the form of yeast-based mycotoxin binders, which are free from contaminants such as dioxin, unlike the traditional clays, and which can nullify the toxin dangers.

In summary, any of these three strategies are worth immediate investigation on any particular dairy unit and perhaps all three simultaneously might be appropriate. The main point is that all of these are available to the producer right now, can be implemented immediately and are proven methods of achieving the required increase in production without the traditionally associated fertility problems. PD

Kevin Tuck
Product Manager
Alltech Inc.

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