Animal feeds are made up of macro and micro nutrients. Within the macros, protein concentration is important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, protein is expensive as high-protein feeds aren’t really grown in Ireland, with the exception of field beans.

The main protein source is soya bean meal which is imported from America and is currently costing over €500/t.

Therefore, the higher the protein content in dairy rations, the more expensive they are because there is more soya used to produce that ration.

These higher protein dairy rations are sometimes confused with being higher quality dairy rations. It’s an easy assumption to make because if something costs more money, then the expectation is that it is higher quality.

Protein is variable

However, that’s not necessarily the case with dairy rations because the requirement for protein is variable.

For example, grass is a very high-protein feed so if cows can get access to grass for a few hours per day then their requirement for supplementary protein falls dramatically.

The thing is, feeding excess protein is bad for the cow and bad for the environment. It’s bad for the cow because this excess protein needs to be processed by the cow’s digestive system and leaves in the form of urine.

A protein overload uses more energy and therefore less energy is partitioned to milk production or body condition score gain.

It’s bad for the environment because the excess protein leaves the cow in the form of high-nitrogen urine splashes.

Water quality deterioration

The other thing is that this soya is often grown on land that was recently cleared of rainforest and travels across the Atlantic with a substantial carbon footprint only for it to then contribute to water quality deterioration in Ireland.

The main point here is that high-protein dairy feed does not mean high quality and feeding high-protein feed could be doing more damage than good when the diet is already well-balanced for protein. Energy is a more important consideration when assessing quality of a ration.

High-protein rations are required to balance low-protein forages. Grass silage is typically around 11% to 12% crude protein while dairy cows require a crude protein content of around 16% in the diet.

Even when including 4kg to 5kg of 18% protein nuts, it’s not possible to achieve target dietary crude protein levels when cows are inside on silage. This can result in lower milk yields and poor overall performance.

So, if a farmer was planning to keep the cows in on middling quality silage until the middle of March, then an 18% nut is probably justified.

However, if a farmer was planning to get cows out to grass, if even for a few hours per day the protein requirement in the nuts would be much lower.

This is because spring grass is exceptionally high in protein at between 20% and 24% protein so achieving the 16% to 18% protein content in the diet is really easy when some grass is included.

Crude protein

In this case, a 12% to 14% crude protein nut would be sufficient and these type of feeds are available significantly cheaper than the 18% nuts.

At a time when all feed prices are still expensive, it pays to make sure that you are only buying what you need.

As the example above illustrates, if a farmer was able to get cows to grass there would be no need for the high protein nuts.

That is obviously a difficult task in early spring and it all depends on soil type and weather. Some farmers will decide to buy a 16% protein nut in February which is a kind of compromise in case cows are inside for a few days or a week.

Another factor to consider is that there is still uncertainty around the crude protein content in dairy rations to comply with the new low crude protein measure being considered by Government under the nitrates rules.

It is uncertain as to whether an average protein content for the year will be used, or an average protein content for the grazing months.