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How efficiently cows convert feed to milk key component to whole farm performance

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How efficiently cows convert feed to milk is a key component to whole farm performance and stems around some highly important areas.

Bruce Forshaw
Bruce Forshaw

Feed conversion efficiency (FCE) should be routinely monitored on-farm, according to Bruce Forshaw, nutritionist for Harpers Feeds.


He says: “All producers should be targeting a FCE of 1.4-1.5. This means a cow is producing 1.4-1.5 litres of milk for every 1kg of dry matter intake. If your FCE is below this, there are some basic areas to focus on.”


1. Attention to detail

Walk the cows and look at what they are telling you through their behaviour. Can you improve feed space or manage stocking rates to reduce competition at the feed fence and increase intakes?


Are cows transitioning well? For example, milk fever will result in reduced dry matter intakes and exacerbate negative energy balance, so they will not use the feed in front of them effectively.


2. Train staff

Train your staff so they know the importance of mixing rations. Explain that putting in a whole block of silage, instead of half, will dilute the energy density.


It is worth hand-weighing costly ingredients, such as fats, to ensure they are not over-provided. How the ration is fed out and presented will also influence intakes, so make sure you push it up regularly.


3. Cull any passengers

For optimum efficiency, a cow needs to produce a calf every 365 days. The longer cows take to get pregnant, the staler they are, the more chance they will get fat and have metabolic problems around calving.


Aim to serve 70% of cows before 80 days in-milk and have 40% pregnant by 100 days in-milk. Cows with an extended lactation will be less efficient, have a lower FCE and will gain weight, even on lower energy diets.


These cows will drag down the FCE and daily margin of the whole herd. If a staler cow is producing 15 litres and taking up a cubicle space another cow could use and produce 30 litres, she costs 15 litres.

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4. Adopt technologies

There are technologies available which help monitor and manage feed use. TMR trackers enable strategies to be monitored and can encourage consistency.


Rationing programmes, such as NutriOpt Dairy, enable diets to be balanced accurately to meet needs, while automated calf milk feeding machines promote consistencies and calf growth.

5. Clamp management

Mould or heating in the clamp can lead to forage losses. Think about using oxygen barrier sheets. When used effectively, these can eliminate spoilage.


It is worth investing in an extra tractor on the clamp at harvest to maximise consolidation, which will optimise silage fermentation.


6. Analyse your forage

Forage makes up a large percentage of the total diet, so knowing forage quality is a must to ensure cows are rationed effectively.


Analysis should be carried out at least once-a-month and when clamps are changed to track changes in dry matter and quality.

How to calculate feed conversion efficiency

If a cow eating 20kg dry matter yields 28 litres, her feed conversion efficiency (FCE) is 1.4.


If with good management and accurate rationing we improve FCE to 1.5, she will produce 30 litres from the same feed.

  • Cow one FCE 1.4 (1.4 x 20kg DMI) 28 litres
  • Cow two FCE 1.5 (1.5 x 20kg DMI) 30 litres from same feed

Case Study

CASE STUDY: Lester Bowker, Gateshayes, Exeter

Whether it is TMR tracking systems or automated calf milk feeding, one Devon farmer believes technology is part of the answer to improved feed efficiency.


As an ex-pig farmer, Lester Bowker is used to monitoring performance and ensuring every input is costed and brings sufficient return.


His belief that ‘feed efficiency yields big benefits’ is one he has carried through into the dairy industry. Since moving with wife Helen to take on her family’s dairy 10 years ago, the couple, along with Helen’s mother Margaret, have been focused on driving feed efficiencies and using technologies to help them do so.


Mr Bowker says: “We are characters that like to measure things and get a response. We brought that mentality to dairy and tried to increase accuracy.”


The family’s 200-cow British Friesian herd yields 7,500 litres at 4.44% fat and 3.42% protein, and calves August to December.


He adds: “I think we have to be more efficient in the way we use feed and we have to be more effective; that is less waste of feed, time and labour.


“That is where technology can help. The tools are there, it is just a case of learning to use them and interpreting data correctly.”


Some of the technologies used at Gateshayes include:

Mixer wagon and TMR tracker system

Changing from a self-feed silage system to a TMR was one of the first changes made by the Bowkers 10 years ago.


Increasing feed space and moving troughs inside, together with introducing a TMR, helped improve dry matter intakes and promote consistencies.


Installing a TMR tracking system on the mixer wagon has also further aided mixing consistencies. This tells staff exactly what ingredient to put in next, how much is needed and how long it needs to be mixed for.


The system is linked to the farm’s computer, so feeding can be monitored and reviewed.


Mr Bowker says: “Feed is more consistent, as they are having the same every day. It is the same product and it is measured in the same way.


“It is about measuring every day what we have fed to cows. It helps us with budgeting going forward so we can plan.”


Automatic recording of feed use also enables costs to be monitored and compared year-on-year. At the same time, it also allows feed conversion to be calculated accurately.


This currently stands at 1.3, which is below target. However, the fact this figure is routinely monitored opens up conversations between Mr Bowker and the farm’s nutritionist Bruce Forshaw, of Harpers Feeds, so changes can be made.


Better ration consistency has benefited both dairy cows and beef animals and has been part of a whole farm approach which has raised yields from 5,000 litres to 7,500 litres over the last decade.


Mr Bowker believes changing ration mixing and improving buildings has helped finish beef cross dairy animals quicker.


Cattle EID

Cattle EID and in-parlour feeders were installed about seven years ago to enable more targeted feeding of cake, according to yield. Since moving to a block calving system, this is no longer as important. However, linking EID to an auto draft system speeds up milking, while the system also enables feed use per litre to be accessed instantly and benchmarked against other farms.


Using EID in beef animals will allow the business to split out animals according to weight and target feed accordingly, which should improve efficiencies.


Automated calf milk feeding and weighing

Calves are fed on two automated milk feeders, which Mr Bowker believes promote consistent milk feeding and intakes every day.


Individual EID tags ensure calves are fed the right amount of milk depending on where they are on a pre-programmed milk feeding curve. This is automatically increased quickly to six litres/day, fed across four feeds (at 125g/litre). This will be gradually reduced by the system for weaning at 72 days.


Calf activity is tracked and deviations from the norm are flagged up by the system.


Mr Bowker says: “That acts as a stimulus to look at calves and can help pick up disease problems early.”


Calves are weighed by Mr Bowker at birth, weaning and four months old. Recent recording shows they are achieving weight gains of 660g/day, which is below the usual 800g/day.


He says: “We would not have known that without weighing.”


As a result, he may look at increasing milk protein levels to 23% from 22%.

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