Use feed efficiency as a cost-control measure and monitor
Feed efficiency is more than a ratio. Used properly, it can tell you whether cows are performing to their potential and if your herd management is allowing them to do so.
"Milk comes from a cow-friendly environment and management. So does feed efficiency," says Jim Barmore, a dairy nutritionist and management consultant based in Verona, Wis. "But we have to move beyond feed efficiency as just being a ratio and move to the dollars and sense of that ratio."
Feed efficiency ratios can alert you to when things go wrong. "If the ration is solid and it predicts that cows should be milking 90 lb. and they’re not, something is wrong. Is it cow comfort, heat abatement, reproduction and days in milk, forage quality and consistency, or feeding management consistency?" he asks.
The economic stakes are huge. Barmore uses two herds as an example. In Herd 1, cows average 94 lb. of 3.5% milk per day and consume 59 lb. of feed dry matter. Their fat-corrected milk:feed efficiency (FCMFE) is 1.59.
Herd 2 averages 86 lb. of 3.5% milk per cow per day, eating 57 lb. of dry matter. Herd 2’s FCMFE is 1.51.
If the ration costs 14¢ per pound of dry matter and the milk is $19 per cwt. at 3.5% fat, Herd 1’s income over feed cost (IOFC) is $9.60 per cow per day. Herd 2’s IOFC is $8.36 per cow per day.
Factor that for a 1,200-cow herd, and Herd 1 has a $543,120 IOFC advantage compared with Herd 2. About $122,000 of that is the value of the 5% better feed efficiency, Barmore explains.
Farm-level feed efficiency is more than dry-matter intake. It’s all feed disappearance—from shrink, fermentation, throw-away from spoiled or uneaten feed, and dry-matter intake. You should also only count milk sold, since it is the only milk you’re paid for, he says.
Weighing feed refusals is critical to calculating feed efficiency and IOFC. "Less than 50% of dairies measure feed refusals. They’re missing a management opportunity," says Keith Sather, with KS Dairy Consulting and Feed Supervisor Systems, in Dresser, Wis.
Some dairies ask their feeders to "read" the bunks prior to feeding, eyeballing feed refusals and then adjusting fresh feed delivery accordingly. High-priced feed makes this approach suspect.
"Typically, feeders aren’t reacting quickly enough to changes in intake," Sather says. They’re either overfeeding or underfeeding much of the time.
Weighing the refusals on a daily basis is really the only way to get an accurate picture of what’s occurring.
"About the most we like to see is a 3-lb. variance in dry-matter intake within a week," he says.