How to maximise feed conversion efficiency for your herd

Walking into the cubicle shed at Lowfield Farm, Northallerton, there is no question as to how the impressive figure of 1.77 litres of milk/kg DM is being consistently maintained. Cows are surrounded by a controlled atmosphere in airy, timber-framed buildings and are freely feeding on a TMR diet tailored to ensure maximum efficiency.

Geoffrey Spence runs 354 cows and followers on the North Yorkshire unit and, having decided to expand the herd seven years ago, erected new buildings in 2004 to enable increased production. Average yields are about 10,500kg a cow, with butterfat and protein levels of 3.96% and 3.15%, respectively.

“The herd is intensively managed on 85ha (210 acres) of predominantly grassland used for silage and heifer grazing,” explains Mr Spence. To maintain level lactations without the hindrance of environmental fluctuations, new buildings were designed to facilitate year-round housing.

With cows inside, accurate ration management is crucial to managing FCE, according to Strutt and Parker’s dairy consultant, Paul Dennison. High yielders are recording 1.77, whereas the 131 low yielders are recording 1.35 (see table). “Feed cost is calculated at 6.1p/kg energy corrected milk for the high yielding group and 7.3p/kg ECM, which works out as an average of 6.4p/kg ECM,” he adds.

The ration primarily consists of grass silage, whole-crop wheat and pressed sugar beet pulp, alongside Vitagold, soya bean meal and maize meal, explains KW Alternative Feeds nutritionist, Steve Allen. “Although the availability of beet pulp is in question, including it in the ration is proving successful in terms of cow performance, so why change it? If we were to make a switch, we would consider including maize in the ration.”

Nothing is fed in-parlour and the group of 176 high yielders are fed 68.9kg freshweight a day, with low yielders on a 57.9kg.

Forward buying forage is crucial for Lowfield Farm, he believes. “Because the herd relies heavily on bought-in forage, due to the low acreage, forward buying is a way to minimise outgoing instability, particularly with current rises in feed costs.”

The purchase of a 12.5t JF-Stoll auger tub mixer in November has allowed a more tailored mixing to take place and two mixes a day are fed, with rations being pushed up six times a day. Any feed left gets reallocated to heifers, which calve at two years, says Mr Spence. “We have to be careful not to over process the mix, as this has detrimental effects on overall palatability and intake.”

Further to careful diet adjustments, environmental management is key to ensuring maximum production. “Investing in new buildings was a considerable task and one which took time, research and investment to get right. The three timber-framed buildings allow maximum airflow and have artificial ventilation installed, meaning that even in the hottest months cows keep cool,” he adds.

“New buildings have had a significant effect on herd health,” reckons Mr Spence. “Even in the heat of July last year we didn’t have a single case of mastitis, milking 290 cows. Overall SCC’s are 140,000. The managed air conditions, coupled with use of sand cubicles, not only improves cow comfort, but also lifts intake.”

Mr Spence milks every morning, which he believes helps him stay on top of management and freely admits that he relies on his herdsman of 13 years, Mark Fawcett. “I appreciate the need for teamwork and bringing in outside expertise is key to driving the business forward.”

In line with this approach, the farm vet visits weekly. “Each Thursday we prepare an action list, with the help of NMR’s Interherd programme, enabling us to highlight key performance data. This is then given to our vet for appropriate action to be taken.”