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Dairy special: The role of fatty acids in dairy cow diets

While fat supplementation in dairy rations has traditionally been viewed as an energy supply, ongoing research has highlighted the effects of individual fatty acids on milk yield, milk fat content, body condition score and fertility.

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Dr Richard Kirkland, global technical manager for Volac Wilmar Feed Ingredients, explains the average dairy cow needs 15 to 20 per cent of her metabolisable energy to come from fat.

 

He says: “This means fat still is, and always will be, an essential energy source for ruminants.

 

However, by understanding the fatty acids that make up fat supplements, dairy producers have the ability to optimise herd performance in specific areas.”


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What are fatty acids?

 

FATTY acids can be grouped into two main categories: saturated and unsaturated.

 

Saturated fatty acids are solid with a high melting point, and unsaturated fatty acids are liquid with a low melting point. There are five major fatty acids found in ruminant diets, and each is utilised differently within the animal, explains Dr Kirkland.

 

This results in specific effects on a cow’s performance:

 

C16:0, PALMITIC ACID


■ Category: Saturated
■ Primary effect: Induces insulin resistance to increase partitioning of nutrients to milk, which in return improves milk and milk fat production
■ Key period for supplementation: Mid to late lactation

 

C18:0, STEARIC ACID


■ Name: Stearic acid
■ Category: Saturated
■ Primary effect: Digestibility decreases as C18:0 intake increases. If present in a supplement, aim for a lower ratio of C18:0 in the mix
■ Key period for supplementation: No specific supplementation requirements

 

C18:1, OLEIC ACID


■ Category: Unsaturated
■ Primary effect: Improves digestibility of total diet fat which increases energy supply. C18:1 also increases insulin, which increases the partitioning of nutrients to improve body condition. This fatty acid has also been proven to boost fertility by promoting egg and embryo development
■ Key period for supplementation: Most beneficial in early lactation. Must be supplied in rumen protected form

 

C18:2 (OMEGA-6), LINOLENIC ACID


■ Category: Unsaturated
■ Primary effect: Helps induce calving. However, higher levels can reduce fertility by stimulating prostaglandin production.
■ Key period for supplementation: Found in most feed ingredients so supplementation is typically not required

 

C18:3 (OMEGA-3), LINOLENIC ACID


■ Category: Unsaturated
■ Primary effect: Reduces prostaglandin production to support embryo survival and fertility
■ Key period for supplementation: Most beneficial in early lactation to support embryo development and survival. For dairy rations with low levels of green forage, C18:3 tends to be low. Must be supplied in rumen-protected form

COMPATIBLE FATTY ACID RATIOS

 

IN a recent study at Michigan State University in the USA, the effects of altering the ratio of C16:0, C18:0 and C18:1 were analysed.

 

Mid-lactation cows were offered one of four treatments, with fat supplements added at 1.5 per cent of dry matter.

 

On average, fat supplementation increased milk yield by 1.9kg/cow/day. However, cows offered the 80 per cent C16:0 supplement significantly outperformed the other treatments in milk fat production.

 

Further data from this study showed the beneficial effect of C18:1 on total fatty acid digestibility compared to the other treatments. Cows offered the higher C18:1 supplement (treatment 4) had the greatest improvements in body condition score (BCS) and liveweight gain.

 

“In isolation, C16:0 induces insulin resistance to increase the partitioning of nutrients to milk, though can have negative effects on egg development leading to reduced fertility. However, C18:1 directs energy to BCS and promotes egg development, thus boosting fertility.”

 

Benefits of a multi-purpose fat in year-round calving systems, targeting specific fat requirements for individual cows is challenging.

 

To combat this, farmers should utilise a multi-purpose fat with an optimum ratio of C16:0 to C18:1 to improve milk yield, milk fat, fertility and BCS throughout lactation.

 

Dr Kirkland says: “If balanced correctly, C16:0 and C18:1 fatty acids balance milk production and body condition during early lactation. As the cow transitions into later stages of lactation, C16:0 increases milk fat while C18:1 supports fertility.”

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