With purchased feed costs making up two-thirds of variable costs across Dairylink Ireland farms, targeting concentrates at cows that will respond in terms of milk yield is a key focus for programme participants.
The upward movement of concentrate prices since the new year has also helped put a renewed emphasis on feed efficiency.
Improving herd fertility will lead to gains in feed efficiency. If cows calve more often, there will be fewer stale cows in the herd.
Several Dairylink farms have been tightening their calving pattern as a means to improve fertility. This is because cows that are slow to get back in calf leave the herd, or at least don’t breed replacements.
In autumn and all-year round calving systems, an important aspect of feed efficiency is silage quality
A more compact calving profile also creates opportunities for feed efficiency, if cows are fed as one group. When cows calve in a narrow timeframe, there is less individual variation in terms of milk yield, so there will be less overfeeding if the group is offered a total mixed ration (TMR).
In autumn and all-year round calving systems, an important aspect of feed efficiency is silage quality. As Table 1 indicates, first-cut silage samples on Dairylink farms have generally met targets.
However, most of these forages were ensiled in early to mid May 2020, when growth rates were less than expected for that time of year.
To ensure that cows have access to first-cut silage throughout the winter, a fodder audit was carried out and a budget prepared on individual farms. In some cases, this meant that first-cut silage was being mixed with other forages. For example, Stephen and Hazel Wallace have been feeding a mixture of first and third-cut silage to their early lactation cows.
Setting up different feed groups is an effective way of improving feed efficiency in herds where cows are calving over a prolonged period.
For example, when James King housed cows in October 2020, an examination of the milk yield distribution within the herd was carried out.
There was still a significant number of late lactation cows going through the parlour at the time, as 34% of cows were yielding 20l or less.
To address this, James created a high-yield group, where cows yielding over 25l were offered TMR plus in parlour concentrate, and a late lactation/low-yield group were offered silage plus in-parlour feeding. Feeding the cows in two groups instead of feeding the TMR to the whole herd saved James almost 18t of blend over a three-month period, which equates to a saving of £4,300.
Creating a second group can pose difficulties for some dairy farms
In terms of feed efficiency, milk produced from forage using the two groups was calculated to be around M+ 6l, as opposed to M+ 3l if all cows were fed the TMR developed for the high-yield group.
Creating a second group can pose difficulties for some dairy farms in terms of having adequate facilities and additional work, although James was able to manage this with relative ease.
He recently reviewed production across the herd and found that 74 % of cows were producing over 25l. As a result, cows are now being managed and fed as one group.
Managing dry cows and monitoring performance
Dry cows are managed to calve down at condition score 2.75 – 3.0, which puts them in a position to maximise feed intake and milk production post-calving.
Measures are also taken to minimise incidences of transition cow disorders such as milk fever, which affects milk yield. For example, the dietary cation anion balance (DCAB) content of forages being fed to dry cows was reviewed across Dairylink farms last autumn. Cows fed diets with a low DCAB value are at a lower risk of contracting milk fever.
To date, all project farmers have reported only a few incidences of milk fever among their herds this year
Some farmers, such as Owen and James Martin, produced forage with a low DCAB value (28 meq/kgDM).
Other farmers, such as John Oliver, found that while the DCAB value of their dry cow forage was higher (248 meq/kg DM), they were able to formulate a diet to reduce the DCAB value of their dry cow diets. To date, all project farmers have reported only a few incidences of milk fever among their herds this year.
Recording feed inputs and milk yields allows performance to be easily monitored against pre-set targets. Dairylink farmers enter this information on a monthly basis into the margin over concentrate (MOC) calculator through DAERA online services.
The programme calculates and presents various measures of feed efficiency on a monthly and rolling annual basis. For example, milk from forage on each Dairylink farm is shown each week in the table at the bottom of this page.
Entering and reviewing the data on a monthly basis allows for rapid feedback and permits the farmers to make adjustments more quickly than if performance was only reviewed every six to 12 months.