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Dairy profitability and efficiency depends on genetic technology

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Efficiency and profitability go hand-in-hand in dairy production. In a recent BoviNews webinar dated Feb. 3, three dairy science experts and a dairy producer share tools and practices they recommend for advancing dairy operations. 

Striving for efficiency

                  Dr. Joel Pankowski, manager of field technical services for Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition kicks off the webinar to share the importance of measuring feed efficiency for profit. 

                  “First, it is important to understand how to calculate feed efficiency,” Pankowski shares. “To correctly measure feed efficiency, divide dry matter intake by milk production.” 

                  This calculation can be made for each individual cow, as well as at the pen level. However, Pankowski notes energy corrected milk is the best parameter for producers to use at the pen level. Tracking feed efficiency is essential in the goal to strive for improved efficiency, and it is a guide for accuracy and precision.

                  “In any given dairy, it is more important for the management team to be precise,” he adds. “We want to get numbers, which overtime, represent the true efficiency of the herd.” 

                  He also notes feed efficiency changes with stage of lactation and is influenced by the cow’s dietary energy content. 

                  “Fresh or high cows will have a feed efficiency ratio of 1.6 or greater because at this stage, they are mobilizing body reserves and eating less dry matter,” Pankowski says. “Cows in late lactation could have a feed efficiency as low as 1.3, as they are not producing as much milk and are working to regain body weight.” 

                  Monitoring forage quality and realizing high-quality forages move through the cow faster than low-quality forages is also notable information, according to Pankowski. 

                  “Feed efficiency is a very good tool to help improve productivity and profitability,” he shares. “Being as consistent as possible to eliminate variation in measuring feed efficiency, understanding values change in production stage and feeding high-quality forages and feed ingredients to promote efficiency will help the dairy focus on producing more milk at less cost.” 

Genetic selection for feed saved

                  Feed is the largest expense on most dairy farms, according to the next presenter. Dr. Kent Weigel, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences chair and professor, notes even small improvements can have impacts on the finances of the farm, the environment and on land utilization. 

                  “What dairy producers are trying to do is maximize feed efficiency and minimize energy lost as fecal matter or as heat maintenance,” he says. “In dairy cattle, we also have to take into account body condition gain and loss during the lactation cycle.” 

                  Weigel explains minimizing energy loss can be accomplished by selecting cows with high milk yield, low maintenance costs and high proportions of energy captured per unit of feed consumed. 

                  “Cows with higher amounts of energy going into milk production rather than body maintenance are efficient, and we want to select the ones using feed the most efficiently,” he says. “Those are the cows we want to keep around.” 

                  The Feed Saved (FSAV) trait managed by the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding (CDCB) combines residual feed intake with excess maintenance costs during lactating and rearing periods, according to Weigel. In fact, FSAV also takes excessive body size and biological efficiency into account. 

                  “FSAV has a little better reliability than residual feed intake, and the Net Merit (NM$) trait also includes a body size penalty,” shares Weigel. “However, maintenance costs are 2.3 times higher under FSAV than what NM$ had been charging in 2013.”

                  Weigel continues, “The CDCB continues to study genotype by diet interactions for feed efficiency and is working to understand physiology, immunology and rumen microbiology of feed efficiency while searching for potential energy sinks in the system.” 

Genetic technology at work

                  “We have tremendous potential to improve feed efficiency because it is a moderately heritable trait,” says Juan Moreno, CEO of STgenetics during the webinar.

                  According to Moreno, EcoFeed, developed by STgenetics, is a feed conversion efficiency index and allows for genomic predictions of related animals with great accuracy. This genetic tool was developed to help make breeding decisions and is closely tied to CDCB traits such as NM$ and Total Performance Index. 

                  Tim Clark, a dairy producer from Quebec, Canada, combines striving for efficiency with FSAV and EcoFeed technologies to drive profitability. 

                  The operation partnered with a lab to take a closer look at the composition of feedstuffs and how rumen microbes respond, ultimately impacting digestibility. From this, the operation has expanded to created a feed facility which allows them to change rations quickly to keep production levels high throughout the year.

                  “From a breeding perspective, cow size, health and longevity, as well as productivity are important traits,” shares Clark. “The ultimate objective is to have a cow we never see.” 

                  The operation has implemented robots, as well as genomic testing on all of their calves to track the productivity and growth of their herd over the years. 

Clark notes he hopes dairies get to the point where breeding, culling and purchasing cattle can be based on EcoFeed, FSAV, value per cow and income over groups of cows in the future. 

                  Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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