How fat helps balance ration for quality milk and fertile cows

Proactive ration management is allowing an expanding Devon dairy operation to capitalise on its milk contract while maintaining cow condition and pregnancy rates of 25%.

A low-energy fourth-cut silage has been managed at Hunshaw Farm, Little Torrington, by including rumen protected fat in the diet to help farmer Jack Elliott take advantage of rising milk prices and maintain quality. 

Rather than supplying more energy by adding concentrates to an already high-starch diet and increase acidosis risk, he was advised to increase the fat in the diet.


© Michael Priestley

See also: Expert advice on raising milk fat and protein content

“We do four cuts of grass silage here and you can typically get three good cuts and one that is a challenge,” explains Mr Elliott, who dealt with a fourth cut silage at 10.2ME after an 11.5ME third-cut silage.

“Like any farm we do get problems here and when we do we quickly try and eliminate them. It’s about trying to remove the limiting factors stopping the cows reaching their potential.”

And while dealing with a low milk price, the feeding and management on farm have sustained exceptional fertility levels.

“We recently won a cream award for our fertility,” says Mr Elliott, who in some months can see pregnancy rates of 32%. “Fertility is important. I want fresh cows putting milk in the tank on this farm.”

Hunshaw Farm

  • 141ha (350 acres)
  • Milking 320 lactation-housed Holstein-Friesians all-year round
  • Building numbers up to run 390 cows in total
  • 25:25 parlour using ADF system
  • 3 times day milking since May 2015 (4am, 12 noon and 8pm).
  • Home-grown grass silage 69ha (170 acres) and 20ha (50 acres) wholecrop barley
  • Additional 40ha (100 acres) maize grown on neighbour’s land
  • Aiming to feed 50:50 forage:concentrate ration in dry matter
  • Supplying Crediton Dairy for flavoured milk drinks
  • Six full-time and three part-time staff on dairy unit


Pre-empting a 1.3ME energy drop in grass silage was important for maintaining yield, butterfat levels and cow body condition, which links to conception rate success, explains Mr Elliott.

“We have to tell Crediton Dairy what we expect to produce and be within 10% of that,” explains Mr Elliott. “Usually we are pretty close to our estimations and sometimes 2%-6% off.”

A “sliding scale” is used on fats, with no payment on protein. For every 0.1% above 4% butterfat there is 0.25p, meaning milk at 4.1% fat is worth 0.25p above the base price or a penalty of 0.25p/litre for 3.9% fat.

However, Mr Elliott sees 4% as a maximum level he is happy with. “If we can produce milk at 3.8% to 4% that works for us as we are a high litre system.”

Feeding fat

Rumen-protected fat is being constantly adjusted at Hunshaw to balance forages, although the supplement now costs 52.5p a cow/day at a 700g a cow/day inclusion rate.

The milking herd, currently at 320 head, consumes 224kg each day as part of a total mixed ration. It includes a protein blend containing 40% soya and 14% rumen-protected fat.

This winter, the amount of Megalac in the diet was increased by 200g (15p a cow/day) to avoid a 1.4litre litre drop in milk yield from an ME drop of 7.15MJ/kg DM in the diet from a lower quality fourth-cut silage.

Over a 60-day period on the ration, this saved 26,880 litres (£6,585.6) at a milk price of 24.5p/litre for an added cost of Megalac at 15p a cow/day (£2,880) and increased soya at 5.8p a cow/day (£1,113.6) leaving £2,592.

This is according to Matt Jackson of Three Counties Feeds, who says supplementary fat works on high yielding systems as a safe way of increasing energy density in every mouthful of feed.

“Forage can be variable but the fat is consistent,” he explains. “We also adjusted things elsewhere in the diet to manage acidosis risk but keep energy high as it was already quite a high-starch diet. Across 320 cows those marginal litres do matter.”

Mr Jackson increased maize by 3kg and reduced wholecrop barley by 3kg. Soya was increased in the blend to lift protein and energy.

He states the importance of fat for high-yielding cows, noting that a cow producing 40 litres at 4% fat is producing 1,600g of fat each day.

For high yielders, around 6-8% of DM should be supplied in fat daily, he adds, also pointing to dark distiller’s grains as a source of 12% oil while cereals are around 2-2.5%, although these sources are not rumen-protected and need monitoring to avoid detrimental effects in the rumen.

Use of fat supplements at Hunshaw Farm


Fat inclusion


Historical rate

250-450g a cow/day

Exact amount depended on cake and blend used.

Summer 2015

500g a cow/day

Altered diet to increase fats while increasing digestible fibre and removing starch. More whole crop and sugar beet fed.

Winter 2016-17

700g a cow/day

Used as a consistent energy source to plug a gap of 1.3ME from fourth-cut grass silage. 3kg more maize, changed blend by increasing soya and lowered wholecrop inclusion by 3kg.

 Winter diet

Feeding plan



2ND cut



Wholecrop barley 10ME



Maize silage 11.2ME



Caustic wheat



Acid buffer



Special dairy nut CP18*



January Fat/protein blend **



Actual intake



*Cake providing high digestible fibre and provides energy. Somewhere in-between an HDF and a starch cake. Soya for high DUP.

**Hi protein and fat blend. 14% Rumen protected fat, 40% hipro-soya.

High output dairy

By sticking to his guns through the milk price crash and maintaining the technical performance of his herd, Mr Elliott sees the farm as being in a “good position” to take advantage of rising milk prices.

“Throughout we have tried to keep the cows performing as well as we can. If you do things that are right to do when milk price is good you shouldn’t necessarily take them out when the milk price is bad – you have to accept you are making a commodity product.

“It’s important to know whether you are getting you money back or not, either in better milk or better fertility. We are now in a strong position to keep the cows performing and benefit from prices this spring.”

Present yields of 11,500 litres could be higher, admits Mr Elliott, who has doubled his herd by importing 200 German heifers (80% fresh, the rest in-calf) in the last 18 months.

“We currently have a young herd with 40% of the cows being heifers,” he explains. “A lot of animals here are heifers or just going to be second calvers and they have a lot more to offer. This could easily be a couple of litres each day, so I am expecting in the region of averaging 12,000 litres/lactation.

“On paper we are feeding for 45 litres a day so we need an energy-dense ration and cows eating as much as they can.”

Managing cows to support fertility – “Condition is everything”

Body condition scoring

Regular veterinary visits take place, condition scoring cows at 80 days and when they are dry. Cows are also assessed fortnightly, with a cross-section of the herd (20 cows being PD’d, 20 fresh cows and 10-15 dry cows) being checked.

A flat diet fed to all lactating cows tries to minimise energy gap in early lactation while avoiding fat cows in late lactation trying to lose no more than 0.5 a condition score through the lactation curve.

Lameness and body condition

“Do skinny cows go lame or do lame cows go skinny?” asks Mr Elliott. “We alternate between formalin and copper sulphate and will add zinc with copper sulphate soon. Our biggest problem is thin soles, so formalin appears to harden feet and help that issue.

“Bruising is trimmed out of feet. We still get the problem of bruising but the problem is dealt with by trimming it out.”

Foot-bathing protocol sees cows foot-bathed three times a week and lameness rates are at 5.9%. Trimming routine is 80 days after calving and when they are dry. 

Transitioning cows

Two diets. Close-up diet starts three weeks ahead of calving date supplying a dry cow roll supplying 60g of protected choline, vitamin E to boost immunity and 200g of DCAD mineral and anionic salts.

Mating programme

Cows selected to be “good all-rounders” with an emphasis on mid-to-high PLI (profitable lifetime Index) bulls that are positive for fertility. Uses Genus breeder tags for heat detection

Water quality

High iron and manganese levels in water around the farm have been addressed by installing water filters.

Water temperature

Warmed water is available outside by the parlour after milking to help cows more after eating parlour cake and drive forage intakes.

Feeding fat

Fat from the diet plays a key role in fertility and an important role in follicle development. By feeding a rumen-protected fat, high amounts of fat can be provided for absorption in the small intestine, avoid reduced fibre digestion.

Driving intakes

Regularly pushing up forage at the feed bunk (eight times a day) is helping maintain intakes.

Breeding protocol

Should first service not hold, the full semen cycle = two straws of sexed semen, then two shots of Belgian Blue, then two shots of Welsh Black 12 hours apart, then the ov-synch veterinary programme kicks in.

Cows inseminated with beef semen if their number is on the Johne’s list, if under 3% protein or if body condition score is too low.

Grassland and Muck

This year’s Grassland and Muck Event taking place on 24 and 25 May at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, will feature a wealth of advice and information on improving livestock performance from grass.

Yara’s Jon Telfer will be talking at 11.30am on both days in the Production from Grass forums about how simple measuring has helped farmers identify the key to producing more, better quality grass and in many cases saved money.

Richard Simpson from Kingshay will also be talking at 12.30pm (Wednesday and Thursday) about realising the true value of milk from forage. Hear how farmers are optimising milk form forage and improving margins and understand what is possible to achieve on your farm.

Find out more about what the event has to offer at