By Chris McCullough
PAYING more attention to feed efficiency indexes when selecting sires for dairy herds will help compensate the escalating costs of feed being witnessed today.
Across the world feed, fertiliser and energy costs have reached record high levels that are decimating profits on dairy farms.
Even though milk prices have also increased fears are that high feed prices, particularly as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, will rise even more over the next few years.
Feed costs represent up to 88% of the variable costs on a dairy farm, therefore it has a significant impact not only on the profitability but also on the environment and animal welfare.
With that in mind dairy farmers are being urged to consider all options to help mitigate these high costs and one perfect tool for doing so is a more targeted and efficient use of genetics.
Several countries and breeding companies have been conducting research and developing systems to collect data needed for calculating genetic index for feed conversion efficiency.
For example, two Holstein cows with the same production level may have quite different feed intake levels. Research showed in one case the more efficient cow consumed 861kgs less dry matter than the other cow, which corresponds to a 12% reduction in feed costs.
|Feed intake, kg dry matter per lactation
|Difference in kg dry matter
|Milk production, Energy corrected milk, kg (ECM) 0-305 days
What is the feed efficiency index?
By selecting genetics with a high index for feed efficiency dairy farmers can use sires that breed cows as better feed converters. This means cows produce more milk and meat on less feed and at the same time ensure that cows have good health and reproduction performance, and long productive life. That helps improve the profitability and sustainability of the business.
The feed efficiency index shows how efficient a cow is in turning feed into milk. Whilst some cows are good at this, others use too much feed for maintenance and are less efficient when it comes to utilising the feed.
The development of a reliable index for feed efficiency requires direct and accurate measurements of individual cow’s feed intake in a large number of lactating cows under the conditions in which they are expected to perform.
The cows sired by the bulls with a high index for feed efficiency use fewer feed resources, as they convert feed more efficiently and require less energy for maintenance.
That means the resources are used more efficiently and dairy farmers can produce more milk and meat with fewer inputs reducing the environmental impact.
Today dairy farmers have access to a number of indexes that rank sires for feed efficiency, including both the national indexes (Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, the United States, the United Kingdom) and company feed efficiency indexes.
Which feed efficiency index to use?
There are five straight questions a farmer should ask his or her genetics rep when considering feed efficiency indexes.
1 Is the data collected from commercial herds with different production systems and management levels without disturbing cows’ natural behaviour and daily routines on the farm?
Herds have different production systems and management levels therefore the data should be collected from a number of farms to give a more reliable index.
2 Is the data on feed intake collected on lactating cows?
Some genetic companies offer data collected from heifers. Research from Pryce et al in 2014 reported a genetic correlation of 0.67 between heifer and first lactation cow efficiency. This means that heifer efficiency only explains 45% of the variation in cow efficiency. This makes the value of making heifer registrations to predict cow efficiency very inefficient. This is also understandable because the energy turnover is very different between these two life expressions.
3 Is the feed intake measured throughout the whole lactation and over cow’s lifetime?
A cow’s physiology and production changes dramatically through lactations. Feeding requirements and performance varies for different periods in lactation. Therefore data should be collected from various stages of the cow’s life.
4 Does the index allow to breed for better feed efficiency without the negative impact on production, health and fertility?
Breeding solely to save feed is not enough as production levels need to be sustained to secure farm’s profits. When breeding for more feed efficient cows farmers need to be careful and not favour the cow that depletes its body reserves for milk production.
5 Does the feed efficiency index account for metabolic efficiency?
Metabolic efficiency is a crucial element in feed efficiency as it measures how efficient the cow is in converting feed energy in her body. This is energy used for instance for supporting milk production.
Feed efficiency index advantages
Breeding for higher feed efficiency helps reduce the environmental impact of dairy and beef industries, as more feed efficient cows have lower methane emissions.
The potential is that farmers find the right genes that can form the basis for the most climate-efficient cow. That way farmers can make sure that they use resources in the most responsible way in order to keep feeding the growing population.
It is important to reduce the environmental impact that each dairy farm has. And if the farmer can achieve this by making relatively simple change in the genetics that they use in the herd in order to reduce the amount of feed that cows intake, and reduce the amount of waste produced but still maintain the desired production level, that results in more efficient farming.
Jan Lassen, MSc., PhD, and Senior Research Manager at the Nordic genetics company VikingGenetics owned by the cattle breeders in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, is encouraging farmers to consider the value of Saved Feed Index that is part of Nordic Total Merit index.
Mr Lassen said: “Breeding for improved efficiency is a win-win situation. Higher production occurs when we select the most efficient animals. There are no negative consequences on health, reproduction and longevity traits.”
By including the Saved Feed Index into the breeding goal dairy farmers get an excellent tool to optimise their business and meet the demands for sustainable food production.