A lot of winter herds will be in the middle of the busy calving period but significant consideration should be given to the winter feed plan for these cows as grazing comes to a close.

Given the greater reliance on imported feeds compared to manufacturing suppliers, the increase in concentrate costs over the last 12 months has had a sizeable impact on the cost of production on winter milk farms.

Even with historically high milk returns, the conversation must be about efficiency at individual farm level when it comes to this winter’s feeding regime. Concentrate feed is the largest variable cost for winter milk farms.

While the average cost in 2021 stood at around 8c/l to 8.5c/l that is to increase to just over 13c/l to 13.5c/l in 2022. Needless to say, there is considerable variation around the average at farm level.

The winter feed plan needs to take into account available forage quality, herd milk yield and calving pattern (proportion of stale versus fresh cows).

Fresh cow diets should promote high milk solids production and good body condition to improve fertility, while ensuring stale cows are fed appropriately for their yield, thus maximising feed efficiency at a whole herd level.

When projecting the typical cost increases that could be expected for the 2022 production year, we have assumed no change in the quantity of inputs used but rather adjusted the cost of each input to reflect the inflation that has been seen over the last 12 months.

The analysis in Table 1 is based on winter calving herds from the Teagasc E profit monitor.

Data for both variable and fixed costs were used. The average annual production for these herds stood at 6,510 litres at 4.20% fat and 3.52% protein, delivering 521kg MS per cow.

The assumptions used are the following: price of feed to increase to €455/t, a 250% increase in fertiliser prices and a 50% increase in contractor expenditure over 2021 levels.

All other variable costs are inflated by 10%. With regard to fixed costs, machinery costs were increased by 30% and electricity/motor/telephone costs increased by 50% with all other fixed costs remaining constant with 2021 levels. This potentially could leave the annualised cost per cow for 2022 at €2,646/cow. That would represent an increase of over €712/cow from 2021 figures, or a 37% increase in costs inside one year.

Deciding on the feed plan

Purchased feed makes up 42% of the projected cost increases. Of course, there will be a large farm-to-farm variation in the relative effect of input cost increases, depending on the physical inputs per cow. Herds that are more reliant on high levels of purchased feed are likely to be impacted to a greater degree.

Farmers should check the milk yield distribution for their own herd using winter milk recording data before setting their feeding strategy for the coming winter.

An analysis of milk recording data for a split calving herd (7,500kg/cow annual yield), shows the average yield for the herd was 26.4kg. Typically 10% will exceed 35kg yield, with 20% of the herd <20kg per day.

Therefore, more than 80% of daily milk output comes from the standard base cow within the herd.

The strategy to ensure the best economic return should be to ensure the basis of the diet is formulated to a herd level and not that of the “best” cows based on the herd’s own performance to ensure high levels of feed efficiency at a herd level. Individual high yielders can be managed as sub group thereafter.

Does it pay to feed more concentrate in a high milk price year?

While 1kg concentrate has enough UFL for 2kg milk on paper, this response to marginal feed is never seen in practice. Why? Extra concentrate reduces forage intake (substitution) and lowers whole diet digestibility (associative effect), so total UFL increase is less than the extra concentrate UFL fed.

The scale of this effect depends on cow type, days in milk, etc. Feed responses appear better with low DMD silage, due to lower initial DMI, but total feed cost per litre will be higher.

For a given herd situation, breakeven concentrate feeding rate will not change too significantly due to base milk price. Milk response rate determines the economics to a greater extent.

Effect of silage quality on milk response to meal

The benefits of higher DMD silage are well proven; improved forage intake, more milk solids and milk from forage, better rumen health and lower concentrate feeding levels.

Table 2 outlines the expected milk yield at different levels of concentrate input on both high- (75DMD) and low-quality (69DMD) milking cow silage.

For example, the typical 600kg cow will require 7kg of concentrate to produce 31.7kg of milk whereas on the same level of concentrate input the expected milk yield would be 26.3kg. This is a difference of 5.4kg of milk.

It would require 11.5kg of concentrate input to compensate for the lower energy level in the 69DMD. It is important to note the acidosis risk where concentrate levels exceed >10kg on poor-quality forages.

Where silage quality is poor, forage intake levels will reduce, therefore it’s important to monitor neutral detergent fibre (NDF) levels in the diet and where shortfalls are identified extra fibre sources should be fed. There are significant challenges in meeting energy requirements in these situations.

As mentioned earlier, the milk response per kilo of meal fed will be higher on poor-quality forage but the overall cost of the diet will be significantly higher.

Expected responses

Table 3 outlines the expected responses for each additional kilo of feed over a 7kg feeding rate. Depending on the milk and concentrate price, the typical breakeven point currently shall be approximately 0.8kg to 0.9kg milk response per kilo of meal fed. Exceeding this will end up delivering a negative return.