Most dairy farmers would agree that feed is the single biggest cost to the dairy industry accounting for some 60% of variable costs, however, new research suggests it is one of the most under-utilised inputs, with as much as 45% of its potential lost from field to cow.

That was the stark warning from Ian Leach, retail programmes manager at Alltech who said that up to a third of dairy feed variable inputs are lost in feed waste which equates to a staggering feed waste value of almost £1 for every £3 spent.

Needless to say, preliminary results from 34 farms show there is scope for huge improvement across UK dairy farms.

“Results show that the average loss of dry matter (DM) in silage clamps is in the region of 25%,” said Mr Leach.

“On most farms, it was identified that the greatest losses were in the most nutritive part of the silage resulting in the undigestible proportion increasing. Not only does this cause a reduction in dry matter intake (DMI), it has potential to lead to health issues, such as SARA, as the balance of the ration can be disrupted.”

Feeding out, physical ration presentation and feed barrier space are also an issue when it comes to feed wastage with the trial highlighting evidence of sorting and ‘balled’ silage on 19 of the 34 test farms.

In addition, 23 of the 34 farms failed to meet the target feed barrier space of 65cm per cow, all of which can impact on feed conversion efficiency (FCE).

“FCE across the pilot study farms averaged 1.2 and we know incremental improvements in this key parameter can significantly reduce feed wastage."

Cow health is another key area where efficiencies can have an impact on feed wastage and the bottom line, Mr Leach said, as the total financial impact of losses on a unit with average incidence rates of mastitis, lameness, metritis and milk fever, can equate to around £39,995 (3ppl).

“Calving intervals of 419 days and service conceptions of 2.6 could also be costing units around £47,161 (3ppl).”

In addition to health and fertility issues, drops in rumen efficiency can add up.

“During the study we saw a consistent presence of fibre in the dung and some grains demonstrating inefficient rumen function. Research shows that a feed conversion efficiency (FCE) of 1.2 could comfortably move to 1.3 with specific nutritional strategies which could have a minimum impact value of 1.4ppl,” added Mr Leach.

And, while the Alltech pilot study could not attribute specific losses against environmental parameters, he said Cow Signals indicates that insufficient feed barrier space, water trough space, or lighting, would have a direct influence on lying time, reducing FCE.

The study assessed a variety of different critical control points where feed wastage occurs, including in the field, during storage, at feeding out and inside the cow.

“We ultimately want to help farmers take greater control of feed waste to cut costs and improve margins,” he concluded.