Don’t risk fertility by cutting back on feed

All livestock producers are asking what they can do to offset high purchased feed prices, particularly when faced with average-looking forage stocks.

With dairy compounds likely to be about £300/t and straights averaging £250/t, it is understandable that many farmers are questioning how to reduce costs. But is this the right question to be asking?

With, at best, stable milk prices and volatile purchased feed costs, it is probably true that marginal litres are going to be less profitable. So can feed levels be reduced, especially given the higher prices?

It has even been suggested in some quarters that diets should be deliberately “de-tuned” to make a political statement, to reduce supply and so put more pressure on the retailers and processors. But it is a myth to suggest you can influence one aspect of cow production – yield – without affecting another – fertility.

Anything that disrupts cow feeding will have both short- and long-term implications and it is the long-term effects – notably getting cows back in-calf – that will have the most serious repercussions. And this is why I believe the crucial question should be how to invest in feed to ensure cows are fed well so they get through this winter in a condition to exploit next season. In simple terms, how do I make sure I get them pregnant?

One part of achieving this is to adopt the mindset that sees feed as an investment rather than a cost. Everything that happens within a cow depends on feed. It may account for 40% of all costs, but it is intimately involved in 100% of performance. Why look to cut a cost that is such a determinant of profitability?

Like any investment, you need to understand the risk. If you cut feed levels, you increase risk and it will not be long before the effect of the risk exceeds the saving. Reduce energy levels below requirement and slowly but surely performance will unravel. Another risk is to use novel ingredients.

Feeds such as soya and wheat are high-value and high-cost and one of the reasons for this is that they are low-risk, which deliver a predictable response when fed to cows as the rumen is used to digesting them. You could replace wheat with bread waste. It is certainly cheaper, but is a substantially different product that will produce an unpredictable response when fed. This might be something visible like a yield fall or an invisible response such as a fall in conception rates.

Long-term dairy farm profitability depends on keeping as many production spaces occupied as possible and making each cow as productive as possible, and key to this is pregnancy rates. So the aim must be to feed cows properly so they milk as well as possible, but also so they get pregnant, because it is always profitable to get cows in-calf.

With high feed prices it is more important than ever to make sure rations are correctly formulated and balanced. Cows need to be consuming 4% of their body weight as dry matter a day and the diet needs to support the production of all cows in the herd. Feeding to the average cow can result in underfeeding for the top proportion of the herd, so making sure the feed is getting to the right cows is also important.

In a difficult market it will really pay to invest in feed levels that keep cows healthy, milking and reproducing. Cutting back may appear to reduce short-term costs, but will store up problems in 11 months’ time when faced with a staler herd with a shortage of fresh calvers.

And it could be the economic situation next year will be better. I am not going to predict what will happen, but I would hope this year’s perfect storm of the wettest UK summer for 100 years, which has reduced forage quality, and the US drought that has sent feed prices rocketing, will not happen again. If we get a more typical weather pattern globally we could be looking at a more favourable environment for milk production, and one all farmers will want to exploit. The key to doing so will be to ensure there are plenty of cows to calve down then – and this means investing in their feeding now.

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