One Group or More?

October 31, 2012 09:26 AM
One Group or More?

Multiple feed groups can save $400 per cow

Most dairy producers know that feeding more groups of cows with rations finely balanced to their needs makes nutritional sense. But until now, it’s been difficult to determine whether such a strategy, with its increased management time, makes economic sense as well. Based on an analysis of 30 herds, ranging in size from less than 200 cows to more than 1,000, the answer is a resounding "yes."

With a three-group strategy, income over feed cost jumps an average $400 per cow, with a range of $161 to $580, says Victor Cabrera of the University of Wisconsin, the lead author of the study and co-developer of a new online grouping tool. "These values represent an increase of between 7% and 52% of farm-calculated income over feed cost," he says.

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"After assuming reasonable costs of management, labor, machinery and expected milk depression on those cows affected by grouping changes, the net return was still much greater than the no-grouping option," he says.

The savings come in being able to feed less energy, protein and additives to cattle in the lower-producing groups. There are costs, though: the time to mix and deliver separate rations once or twice each day; milk depression due to social readjustment when cows are regrouped; and the lower nutrient content of new feed.

Typically, cows are grouped in one of four ways:

  •  Days in milk. "This is popular among farmers as it is easy to manage, coincides with other management practices [reproduction, for example] and seems intuitive, as cows in similar lactation stages would have similar nutrient requirements," Cabrera says.
  •  Fat-corrected milk. This takes into account the level of milk production as well as butterfat production. It allows rations to be more finely tuned to the nutrient requirements of cows at various production levels.
  • Dairy merit. This strategy groups cows based on both production and body weight (fat-corrected milk divided by body weight). Research suggests this strategy outperforms both days-in-milk and fat-corrected-milk groupings.
  • Cluster. "This consists of grouping cows with similar requirements of net energy and crude protein," Cabrera says. "It seems to be the most efficient method."

To use the software, you will need to define either the price, crude protein and net energy content of corn and soybean meal, or the value of crude protein per pound and net energy ($/Mcal).

Plug in a milk price, the grouping strategy you are considering and estimated body weight—for example, 1,100 lb. for first-calf heifers and 1,300 lb. for older cows. By running the software through several scenarios, you’ll be able to determine whether multiple groups make economic sense on your dairy.

"Depending on the farm facilities and extra management costs, considering additional grouping for feed purposes could be a profitable decision," Cabrera says.

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