Although feed is the single biggest cost for UK dairy businesses, a new study has found that as much as a third of it is wasted by various means on average.

Feed accounts for about 60% of variable costs, but recent industry research has suggested it is one of the most under-utilised inputs, with as much as 45% of its potential lost from field to cow.

Ian Leach, feed specialist, Alltech's retail programmes manager, said that this equated to a feed waste value of almost £1 for every £3 spent in a pilot study carried out by the company.

“The preliminary results reinforced the scale of the issue. 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,” he said.

Explaining the dataset, which was taken from 34 farms, Mr Leach said the study confirmed that there is scope for huge improvement across the spectrum of UK dairy farms.

On storage, he said: “Results show that the average loss of dry matter (DM) in silage clamps is in the region of 25%. 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, it has potential to lead to health issues, such as SARA, as the balance of the ration can be disrupted.”

He added that at feeding out, the physical ration presentation and feed barrier space was an issue: “There was evidence of sorting and ‘balled’ silage on 19 of the 34 test farms, and 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,” he pointed out.

Cow health was also a key area where efficiencies can have a big impact on wastage and the bottom line. “For example, for a unit with average incidence rates of mastitis, lameness, metritis and milk fever, the total financial impact of losses equates to around £39,995, or 3ppl,” said Mr Leach.

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

Drops in rumen efficiency can also add up, he argued: “For example, during the study we’ve seen a consistent presence of fibre in the dung and some grains demonstrating inefficient rumen function. Research has shown 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 1.4 ppl,” he said.

“While the Alltech pilot study cannot attribute specific losses against environmental parameters, Cow Signals indicates that insufficient feed barrier space, water trough space, or lighting, will have a direct influence on lying time and reduce FCE.”

He said the Alltech team will continue to assess the extent of losses in other areas of the system on more farms: “We ultimately want to help farmers take greater control of feed waste to cut costs and improve margins.”

Pilot study farm facts

Number of farms 34

Geography West England and Wales

System Mix of AYR and aut/spring block calving

Feed system Mixed partial and full TMR

Forage type Grass silage-based, maize and whole-crop

Yield average 8639 litres

Av herd size 181

Av annual litres 1.6m

Av butterfat 4.01%

Av protein 3.25%

Av cow weight 663kg

Milk price av 30ppl

Tips on reducing feed waste

Alltech's Jill Hunter, its InTouch feeding specialist, explained that there is a huge variance in forage availability across the country, with some producers feeling the pressure more than others.

However, there are practical measures to reduce waste that can benefit all farms. “Making small management changes can have a big impact on waste reduction and, ultimately, the bottom line,” said Ms Hunter.

The adoption of technology can help improve ration presentation and reduce wastage, with one pilot study farm witnessing improvements in feed conversion efficiency (FCE) from 1.2 to 1.39 following the implementation of InTouch, a 'smart' weighing ration system.

“This delivered a total financial benefit of 4.7p per litre based on a total mixed ration (TMR) diet fed year-round,” she said. “The end result was a TMR which has consistent structure, mix and chop length."

“Reviewing mix quality, cow cudding time, dung consistency and FCE performance are parameters that should be monitored as part of waste reduction strategy,” she said. “This will help flag suboptimal rumen performance, which will lead to increased feed waste within the cow, reduced performance and feed stocks being eroded quicker than necessary.”

Five steps to self-assessing your ration:

1. Feed refusals: At the end of the day, is there more than 5% of feed left over? This could signify loading accuracy or mix consistency issues.

2. Mix quality: Is fibre chopped to muzzle width and is the mix light and fluffy?

3. Cow signals: Are your cattle lying down and cudding when they are not eating or drinking?

4. Dung: Is dung firm enough to form a thick dome pat, and is there a slow clap-like sound on defecation?

5. Performance: Are you happy with your FCE? The recommended minimum target of 1.5 FCE target represents 1.5 litres of milk for every 1kg of DM of feed.