Once the main nutrients are provided, it is then common to “fill in the holes” of the nutrient profile. Next, we often insert “tools” that are hopefully useful in improving animal performance, rumen function, animal health, stress reduction and so on.
Over the years, the dairy industry has developed a long list of both supplements and feed additives that provide a variety of potential benefits to the cow. Here is a little refresher:
1. Supplement – This is a compound that provides a nutrient or nutrients in some form where these are otherwise lacking in the base diet. In other words, when we recognize the forages or feed and grain ingredients are not providing the correct balance of nutrients to the animal, a supplement can be used to make up for the deficiency. An example of this might be as simple as your mineral and vitamin premix, which can be fed at a relatively low level yet rounds out the levels of minerals and vitamins required by the cow.
As the industry develops a more extensive understanding of nutrition in general, these supplements can be sources of amino acids or fats and fatty acids. The supplements can also be found in forms that are specially manufactured or processed so they largely bypass the rumen and can be more directly absorbed, unscathed, by the cow.
2. Additives – As the name implies, these are products added to the diet to perform a certain job in the overall digestive process of the cow. They generally do not provide a nutrient value or, if they do, the feeding level is so small that what nutrients they might provide are incidental and not overly useful in contributing to the protein, energy or other nutrient needs of the animal.
These can be products such as direct-fed microbials, yeasts, essential oils, enzymes, ionophores, etc., that may have an effect on the function of the rumen or activity of the rumen microbial population. The goal here is to enhance the performance or function of the rumen or other areas of the digestive tract to improve the flow of nutrients to the cow or to improve its health.
A very long list
There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of products used as both nutrient supplements and feed additives. In any case, there are numerous versions of the same type to choose from. Take, for instance, organic or chelated trace minerals (OTMs). There are potentially a dozen or more manufacturers of OTMs on the market.
This is where the challenge starts. How does a dairy producer, along with the nutritionist or veterinarian (this article doesn’t even touch on health-related products such as vaccines, antibiotics, reproductive or breeding tools, etc.) make a decision on which of these products may best fit the dairy? For many producers, this is actually a pretty easy question to answer: They leave it up to their nutritionist or vet, making them decide. But, frankly, that’s part of what they are paid for.
To evaluate most supplements and feed additives, it is important to start with the research. Products being sold into the dairy markets should be proven to at least some degree with structured, well-designed research that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. There should be multiple studies, and these should have been conducted not just in company facilities but also at accredited universities by experienced researchers.
These studies need to have been run with significant numbers of animals, repeated several times and in different locations. Finally, it is useful to have some of the trials run in the field (farm trials) where they were evaluated in the “real world.” Depending on the product, in the controlled world of university research it is often possible to identify responses. It’s something totally different to run trials of this nature on the farm, where the background “noise” can overshadow responses.
Another challenge is created when multiple products are fed in the same ration. The combinations can be confounding, making it difficult to identify which product created the effect or improvement (if any).
Here are a few steps the dairy producer can take to evaluate various supplements or additives:
- Determine why there may be a need for the product. Is there a deficiency in the ration that needs to be met? Are there production or health issues in the herd that may be related to a specific nutritional shortage? Are there other problems that could be solved by feeding a particular product?
- Discuss the product with your nutritionist or veterinarian (or other producers). It never hurts to get a number of perspectives or inputs.
- What are the economics? What is the cost per head per day? What is the potential return? Will the product pay for itself or, better, will there be a positive return on investment?
- Talk to the prospective supplier. Obviously, they want to sell their product, but if they are reputable, they will want to be sure it “fits” in the program. Ask to talk with other producers in your area who are already using the product to get their take on the responses and economics.
- Determine what can be considered a success if the product is added. Is it more milk, improved components, lower somatic cell count, healthier cows, improved feed efficiency, etc. Do you have a means of measuring a response?
- Read all the research reports available.
- Work with your nutritionist on designing a protocol to test the product.
- Decide how long the evaluation period needs to be in order to be fair. Look at your feed and forage supply to be sure you have adequate amounts of consistent ingredients so the variation and changes will be minimal during the evaluation period.
- Decide whether you are going to evaluate the product on one group, (i.e., fresh, high, late lactation, etc.), more than one group or on the whole farm.
- Discuss with your employees, particularly if they do the feeding or handle related management responsibilities. It’s always important to have everyone on board.
- Make sure everything is in place so the product can be properly mixed (if added alone or in a premix) and delivered to the group in question.
- Keep good records. While it’s always important, you want to be able to document changes, improvements, problems, costs, etc. Does use of the product create some type of disruption on day-to-day operations?
This process can be used for any number of different products, but it’s always best to evaluate one at a time so you can get a clear picture. Sometimes the results are difficult to see and may take a long period of time. So be patient. But if you don’t see a response in a predetermined amount of time, or the cost exceeds the return, move on to the next opportunity.
Some farms enjoy the evaluation process. Some do not and like things to be set and consistent. But in any case, there is always room for improvement, opportunities to improve efficiency, performance and profitability. In many cases, identification and evaluation of useful and effective supplements and additives can play an important role in the process.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. Email Steve Blezinger or call him at (903) 352-3475.
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