‘Difference in feed conversion financially interesting’

Dairy farmer Willem Alders about feed costs
Dairy farmer Willem Alders

The income over feed costs is a key financial factor for Willem Alders. Feed intake data really opened his eyes to the individual differences between cows. ‘The poorest performing animals add little or nothing to the total income over feed costs. However, the best performing animals contribute more to the profit than expected’, he states.

Willem Alders had expected there would be differences, but such a large variation in feed conversion rates between individual cows came as a big surprise to the dairy farmer. The Alders family from Overloon started registering the feed intake of individual cows, in cooperation with CRV, two years ago. The most efficient cows produce 1.9 kilos of fat protein corrected milk from one kilo of feed, while their least efficient counterparts lag behind at 1.2 kilos of FPCM. These differences have a considerable financial significance. ‘A cow with a lactation value of 96 and good feed conversion turned out to be almost as profitable as a comparable herd member with a lactation value of 106 but a lower feed conversion rate,’ says Willem, using a practical example.

Significant variations in income over feed costs

Together with his father Ben, mother Hannie and brother Tim, Willem Alders runs a farm that takes a multi-faceted approach to agriculture. Their activities include a manure processing installation. Willem is in charge of the dairy farm – home to 200 dairy cows and 85 head of young stock on 50 hectares of land. The cows produce a rolling annual average of approximately 11,000 kilos of milk, with 4.20% fat and 3.65% protein. The herd is milked twice a day.

‘We aim for high production per cow. With our intensive system that is the most profitable approach’, he says. ‘We have to buy our feed and dispose of the manure. In our situation, that means that the income over feed costs – calculated as milk sales minus feed costs- is an important financial factor’, he explains.

Based on the measured feed intake data, strikingly large differences were revealed for this trait within the herd as a whole. ‘The poorest performing animals add little or nothing to the total income over feed costs. But, on the other hand, the best performing animals are in fact extremely profitable’, is Willem’s conclusion.

Willem Alders: ‘Breeding for feed conversion is financially interesting and contributes to the sustainability of dairy farming’

Roughage converters are also concentrate converters

The farmer expects that the results obtained from measurements of his herd can be easily converted to farms with other, for example, more extensive, management systems. ‘We are seeing that cows who efficiently convert roughage into milk also utilize the concentrate ration effectively’, he says. Willem believes that breeding is a key driver to generating profits on the farm. ‘Individual cow performance is the result of a combination of genetic predisposition and management’, he continues. ‘Under poor management, good genetics will not realise their full potential. But, if a good genetic predisposition is lacking, good management will not get the very best performance from the cow either’, he says.

Feed conversion is a bonus 

The dairy farmer is also keen to stress that feed conversion cannot be seen in isolation to production, longevity, health and fertility. He offers an illustration to back this up. ‘A cow that converts one kilo of feed into a high volume of milk, but doesn’t get beyond one lactation, can logically never be efficient.’ For that reason, breeding a healthy, highly productive herd is and remains the cornerstone of Alders’ breeding goal. ‘But breeding for feed conversion is the next step in the breeding strategy that can deliver a bonus’, he adds. ‘That’s not only a financially interesting prospect, it also  contributes to the sustainability of dairy farming.’

Breeding for feed conversion made easy

CRV has published the breeding values for feed intake (in kilograms of dry matter) for all its bulls since December 2017. The figures are based on the measured feed intake of thousands of cows. Achieving a low feed intake is not a goal in itself. A cow with a high consumption pattern can still have a high feed conversion rate, just as long as the animal in question produces a lot of milk.

The breeding values ‘saved feed for maintenance’ (SFM, in kilograms of dry matter) and ‘saved feed costs for maintenance’ (SFCM, in euros per lactation) take this into account. Breeding for SFCM results in cows that need less feed to maintain their body condition and support movement and digestion. This leaves more feed over to convert into milk production and the feed conversion rate will rise. Since April 2018, the breeding value for SFCM has had a 5% weighting in the total NVI index. The total feed efficiency throughout a cow’s lifetime not only depends on milk production and feed intake, but also on longevity, persistency, later maturity, age at calving and the calving interval. All these breeding values are factored into the calculation of Better Life Efficiency.