If you’re like most dairy producers, you’re able to cite your herd’s average milk production, pregnancy rate or somatic cell counts without hesitation. But what about your feed efficiency? Very few producers have a good handle on feed efficiency, yet improving conversion of feed into milk is one of the ways dairy operations can survive today’s economic climate.

Feed efficiency (FE) can be affected by many factors, including milk production, stage of lactation, bodyweight, weather and feed quality. For example, increasing feed digestibility can improve FE, while rumen acidosis can have a negative impact.

By itself, FE is not a benchmark of profitability. However, it is a helpful measurement that can guide ration choices that affect income over feed cost (IOFC) and total operation profitability.

Producers can improve FE by reviewing, analyzing and implementing steps to get the most out of each pound of feed.

Measuring feed efficiency

As with any management protocol on the dairy, improvement in FE starts with measurement and goal setting.


FE is measured as kilograms of milk per kilogram of dry matter (DM) consumed. On a per-cow basis, use this calculation:

FE = Kilogram of milk produced ÷ amount of feed DM consumed (feed DM consumed = feed fed – feed refusal x DM per cent of the feed)

For example, if a cow produces 34 kilograms of milk per day and consumes 45 kilograms of feed with 50 per cent DM, the FE is 1.55.

It is best to measure feed efficiency by using 3.5 per cent fat-corrected milk (FCM) as the benchmark. A simple rule of thumb for determining FCM is to add or subtract 0.45 kilograms of milk for every 0.1 per cent above or below 3.5 per cent fat.

Goals for feed efficiency

FE goals range from 1.65 to 1.70 for Nutritionist Russ Fisher of DairyVision, Inc. in Grey Eagle, Minnesota. By closely monitoring FE on his clients’ herds, Fisher helps identify the need for changes to nutrition and herd management protocols.

“If I can do a better job toward improving feed efficiency, I can do a better job toward profitability with a dairy,” Fisher says. “Feed is the largest expense on a dairy. Paying attention to feed efficiency can help maximize income over feed cost, and it helps the management team of a dairy feel more secure that correct choices are being undertaken.”

To achieve FE goals, Fisher puts a high priority on forage quality. Along with cow comfort, low somatic cell count, transition cow management and reproduction, Fisher lists forage quality as a key profit centre for dairies. Since forage quality is associated directly with feeding, it can have a huge impact on FE and IOFC.

“High-quality forages, sufficient effective fibre and adequate particle size play a big role in maintaining feed efficiency,” Fisher says.

One of Fisher’s Minnesota dairies produces 37.2 kilograms of milk per head per day on 22.5 kilograms of feed DM per day, yielding an FE of 1.65. The 1,100-cow herd is being fed a higher-forage diet, with at least 11.8 kilograms DM per head per day coming from BMR corn silage. In this herd, assuming total feed costs are 10 cents per pound DM, total feed costs are 50 cents per head per day lower than they would be with 24.8 kilograms DM fed and a FE of 1.50. That difference in FE adds up to almost $200,000 per year.

Fisher says he believes that FE is becoming a tool whereby some dairies may be able to use milk production history and feed cost projections to allow contracting both milk and feed to lock-in profit.

Feed efficiency and IOFC

Further west, Shane Holt of Cargill Animal Nutrition utilizes software tools to help make ration decisions that enhance his clients’ FE and IOFC.

“If I spend 12 cents per head per day on a diet change, do I get a profitable return?” Holt questions. “Using some energy or protein supplements to get higher milk doesn’t always return the most profit. To determine if a change is profitable, we take into account the price of milk and what the dairy is being paid for fat and protein and compare it with the additional feed cost.” Software programs, such as Dairy Profit Analyzer, have a role in determining potential efficiency and IOFC.

“In the West, where there is a focus on alfalfa hay, we add a lot of energy, which usually means lower-forage, higher-concentrate diets,” Holt says. However, the availability and high cost of energy to supplement alfalfa is putting high-hay diets under more scrutiny.

In some areas, corn silage is finding a place in rations – with higher FE as a result.

Because of its energy value, Holt says he believes that high-quality corn silage has a place in dairy diets and can contribute to better FE and IOFC. About corn silage, he adds, “It’s the lowest cost per pound of dry matter.”

“We want to let the rumen do the work,” Holt explains. “Feeding highly digestible forages can optimize rumen function, reduce rumen health problems and lower ration costs. Milk production from a high corn silage diet has the potential to outperform above a high-concentrate diet when it comes to profitability.”

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Holt has run the numbers for diets with three levels and types of corn silage. A high-forage diet based on BMR corn silage showed a projected savings of up to 41 cents per head per day over a lower-forage, higher-concentrate diet. (Figure 1)

Harvest tips to improve efficiency

Holt notes that attention to proper harvest and storage of corn silage also helps improve FE and IOFC.

“The average dry matter loss from harvest to feeding is 20 to 25 per cent, adding $10 to $20 per ton to the cost of corn silage DM. There could be a huge cost savings if that shrink could be shaved to 10 per cent,” he says.

“We talk to producers about adding an extra pack tractor, making smaller piles and staggering harvest by planting different maturities of hybrids. Whatever we can do to optimize harvest and feed a higher-quality product will contribute to greater feed efficiency,” Holt says.

Remember these points

  1. Monitor FE and shoot for averages greater than 1.6.
  2. Explore how high-energy forages – especially corn silage – can positively affect your operation. Software tools can help you evaluate options for improving overall IOFC.
  3. Properly manage forage harvest and storage to enhance feed efficiency. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to editor@progressivedairy.com.

John Anderson is a forage nutritionist withMycogen Seeds. Email John Anderson.