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The paradigm for dairy cow diets is always changing.
In past times -- when protein was cheaper and abundant, margins were better and environmental issues were not as focused -- the strategy was to feed all that could be justified and then some more to be sure.
With tightening margins, higher feed cost and more attention to environmental consequences, there are opportunities to refocus on just how much or how little protein is needed to sustain high production and returns to the herd. We are seeing dairy producers reducing the protein levels in their rations by 2% of the diets or more while maintaining production and performance.
Researchers, Extension personnel, feed consultants and feed advisers are taking a new look at not just reducing protein levels in the diets, but how to better manage matching the cow's fundamental protein or nitrogen requirements with her needs. The goal: to improve the efficiency of the protein and reduce the excretion of the excess or unused protein as nitrogen in the manure. The potential results are improved margins and a reduced environmental impact.
Establishing the animal's protein requirements is a process that continues to evolve through research, new models and ration systems. At one time, the concept of crude protein was fundamental to all protein decisions and calculations. The idea was that crude protein is 16% nitrogen and thus, measuring the feed's nitrogen times 6.25 results in the percentage of crude protein. That concept has held true for more than the past century.
What has developed is a greater and better understanding of what makes up that protein requirement and how those protein fractions are used by the modern dairy cow. The application of all that knowledge is encompassed in the modern dairy ration program that resides in the computer that you or your feed adviser may be using.
The on-farm challenge is to utilize this knowledge base, along with the other technologies and management strategies on your farm, to narrow the allowance for diet protein to the cow's needs.
Here are some steps to help you meet that challenge: