EVEN tiny improvements in feed conversion efficiency can lead to a big improvement in margins, according dairy expert, Louise Clarke.

Just a 0.1 change in FCE can affect milk yields by as much as two litres per cow per day and Miss Clarke, ruminant manager at Alltech, pointed out that many herds are not achieving the target FCE. And this is contributing to an overall under-utilisation of feed inputs and ultimately lost profitability.

“Producers should be aiming for a minimum target FCE of 1.5,” she said. "But the recent Alltech feed waste reduction and utilisation on-farm pilot study showed a huge variability across UK dairy farms.

“The average FCE was found to be 1.2, while some high performing herds were reaching 1.7. It’s important to note that approximately 1.7 is the maximum to aim for as much beyond this, cows could start milking off their backs.”

Miss Clarke pointed out that many farmers do not routinely measure FCE and, therefore, are not necessarily aware of the impact it could be having on business profitability. “It can be easily calculated by dividing the average litres per cow per day (corrected to 4% BF and 3.2% P) by the total dry matter fed to give the kg of milk per kg of dry matter.”

She added that putting a monetary value against key sources of feed waste and underutilisation was important to support on-farm improvements, something which Alltech’s new Navigate service has set out to achieve.

“This assessment provides quantitative measures which help farmers to identify key areas where improvements can be made,” explained Miss Clarke. “It assesses the whole feed process, including in the field, during storage, at feed out and within the cow, and FCE has been identified as an area that offers a high potential for gains, with savings of up to £113 per cow per year achievable.”

Many factors can influence FCE, including diet balance, presentation and consistency, as well as the environment. Health and fertility are also key parameters that determine how well a cow can utilise feed.

“Calculating and monitoring FCE on a regular basis is recommended to flag any potential drops early but checking the dung for any undigested grain or fibre is a quick way to get an idea of ration digestibility and utilisation.”

Presuming the ration is balanced correctly, Miss Clarke said it was worth checking whether cows are consuming what they should be. “Loading inaccuracies or sorting due to a poorly mixed TMR can cause variable intakes, which results in fluctuations in rumen pH and reduced microbial activity.

“Incorporation of a live yeast can help improve rumen stability, enhance digestion and nutrient utilisation, and proves particularly useful in nutrient-dense rations with a high proportion of starch,” she added.

“The environment is another area which is worth casting a critical eye over,” says Miss Clarke. “It’s important there’s sufficient lighting to help drive optimum dry matter intakes (DMI). Cows require 16 hours at a minimum, of 160 lux and eight hours of less than 50 lux.

“Sufficient access to feed and water can also crucial to maximise DMI. Feed barrier space of 65cm per cow and 10cm of water trough access per cow should, therefore, be a minimum requirement,” she stressed.

“Cubicles need to be comfortable and the correct size, as for every hour beneath the target of 14 hours of lying time, the cow is losing one litre of milk each day."