Feed efficiency may be called milk production efficiency or dairy efficiency, but all these refer to the same thing: How efficiently a dairy cow converts feed to milk. Far more important than the name is how this efficiency can affect a dairy’s bottom line.

The economic impact of feed efficiency is well accepted in beef, poultry and swine production, but it’s still not as widely held as a benchmarking tool in the dairy industry.

Like all such tools, feed efficiency has its limitations. Although feed efficiency can be measured relatively easily, one challenge is defining what is a good value for feed efficiency or, likewise, what constitutes a bad value. It is also difficult to make comparisons among herds, since numerous factors can affect feed efficiency from one herd to another.

The potential impact of feed efficiency on the bottom line is undeniable. The critical thing to keep in mind is to watch for trends within a herd over time.

A direct tie to the bottom line
An improvement in feed efficiency can result in three possible scenarios (see Table 1*):


1) An increase in milk yield with no change in feed intake
2) A decrease in dry matter intake (DMI) with no change in milk yield
3) A slight increase in milk yield with a slight decrease in feed intake

The influence of each possibility on the bottom line depends on the prevailing milk price compared to the value of each pound of dry matter. A pound of milk is almost always worth more than a pound of dry matter. Therefore, an increase in milk yield is usually going to have the largest increase in income over feed cost, a decrease in DMI alone will have the least increase in income over feed cost, and a combination of the two will fall somewhere in between. For example, if milk is worth $15 per hundredweight and feed costs $0.10 per pound of dry matter, the value of increasing feed efficiency from 1.4 to 1.5 ranges from $0.33 to $0.75, depending on whether the change is all milk, all feed or a combination (see Table 1*). Calculated over the course of a year for every 100 cows, this would result in an extra income over feed cost of $12,045 to $27,375 – a substantial increase in profitability.

Measuring feed efficiency
As with any benchmarking tool used on the farm, information on feed efficiency is only as valid as the data from which it was calculated. In an ideal world, you would know exact DMI and milk yield for every pen, every day. If your dairy has the ability to obtain all these measurements each day, you have the tools to capture feed efficiency easily. Problem is, very few dairies actually have this information on a daily basis, so you have to work with the information you do know.

For example, most operators would know total milk shipped per day and total number of cows being milked, and thus could readily calculate milk yield on a per head, per day basis. With the use of component information from the creamery you could calculate a 3.5 percent fat-corrected milk (FCM) yield.

The next step is to establish DMI. If you utilize a feed program, the feed offered daily on a per-cow basis would be relatively easy to obtain. But to accurately measure intake, you need to remove feed refusals (orts). This is where intake measurements get a little tricky because it can be very time-consuming to measure orts on a daily basis. This may be a place for estimation. This can render your data extremely inaccurate, but by doing this every day and using weekly or monthly averages, you can remove a lot of irrelevant “noise” from your data.

If you do not utilize feeding software, data gathering will require documenting feed offered each day in order to calculate DMI, again taking orts into consideration.

The objective in measuring feed efficiency is to collect data that is as accurate as possible and then use averages over a period of time to remove as much of the “noise” as possible. Keep in mind that numerous variables can impact feed efficiency, so making comparisons to other farms may not be prudent. Your numbers should be used as your farm’s own benchmark to evaluate changes.

Factors impacting feed efficiency
Nutrition usually comes first to mind when considering improving feed efficiency, but nutrition is truly only part of the story. Such management factors as cow comfort, distance walked to and from the milk barn and times milked can all impact feed efficiency by either decreasing or increasing the percentage of nutrients that are being used by the cow for maintenance. The more nutrients the cow uses for maintenance, the less she will have for milk production.

Non-management factors that can affect maintenance requirements include pregnancy status, body size, weather and sickness. Stage of lactation or days in milk (DIM) can also have a tremendous impact. A cow in early lactation is mobilizing body reserves to meet milk production demands and, as a result, is producing a lot of milk for the amount of feed she’s consuming. At the opposite end of the spectrum are cows in late lactation that are producing less milk in response to their still relatively high DMI because they are replenishing body reserves.

Nutrition’s impact on feed efficiency is typically the result of differing digestibility of forages, feed additives and the fiber content in the diet. These three factors can increase the nutrients captured by the cow for each pound of feed consumed. A good understanding of the factors that impact feed efficiency will help you determine if an observed change in feed efficiency is due to management, nutrition or some other factor outside of your control.

Manage the trends
Improving efficiency can improve profitability on most farms, but using feed efficiency data to make decisions can be risky if the data are not accurate. It is also important to be able to understand what factors in your herd are really influencing feed efficiency. Similar to tracking milk yield, there may be large seasonal variations in feed efficiency. Therefore, as your data collection history approaches one or two years, the ability to make decisions with that data will improve.

The key is to manage the trends you observe, not the absolute feed efficiency values. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at editor@progressivedairy.com

Table omitted but is available upon request to editor@progressivedairy.com.

Chel Moore
Dairy Consultant