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Dairy Cattle
Illinois Livestock Trail
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Using Dairy Efficiency
by Mike Hutjens, Extension Dairy Specialist, University of Illinois, Urbana, Il

When swine and beef producers evaluate their livestock operations, one value is the efficiency of converting feed to gain or growth. Less feed required per unit of gain improves performance and profitability. Dairy managers are also evaluating a similar value on their dairy farms. Dairy efficiency (DE) is pounds of milk per pound of ration dry matter. This calculated value allows the dairy managers to evaluate the milk yield in relationship to dry matter intake. Guidelines are listed below.

  • Values between of 1.3 to 1.5 are normal target values.
  • Values below 1.3 are a concern. Cows are consuming too much feed dry matter, milk production has declined, or items have changed indicating lower feed efficiency or DE.
  • Values over 1.5 are excellent indicating higher efficiency and profitability.

In February, we held a workshop with Northern Illinois Dairy Focus group. These dairy managers met to discuss current dairy policies, management factors, and opportunities. When I met with the group, the assignment was to calculate their feed cost information and calculate their DE values that used for discussion and comparison. Results from eight farms that completed the work sheet are summarized in Table 1. Feed cost per one hundred pounds of milk varied from $3.60 to $4.87. These feed costs are excellent (all below our target value of less than $5.00). However, the range is wide with the lowest feed cost farm producing one hundred pounds of milk for $1.17 less (which is similar to getting $1.17 per cwt more). Feed costs per pound of dry matter ranged from 0.058 to 0.068 per pound. A one cent savings per pound of dry matter translates in to over 50 cents lower feed cost per cow per day. Dairy efficiency ranged from a low of 1.24 to a high of 1.59. High milk production drove this value high resulting in great efficiency (1.59) for herd A while herd B had high dry matter intake with good milk production (73 pounds of milk).

Table 1. Results of the February Northern Focus Group Feed Cost Survey

Farm DMI Cost Milk (3.5%) Feed cost DM Cost Dairy Efficiency
  (lb/cow) ($/day) (lb/cow) ($/cwt) ($/lb) (lb milk/lb DM)
A 62.1 4.14 98.5 4.20 0.067 1.59
B 58.9 3.56 73.0 4.87 0.060 1.24
C 57.0 3.42 82.0 4.86 0.061 1.43
D 47.5 2.82 68.0 4.15 0.060 1.43
E 52.6 3.40 74.0 4.86 0.060 1.41
F 57.0 3.42 82.0 3.94 0.060 1.43
G 51.9 3.16 74.0 4.21 0.058 1.42
H 52.4 2.99 74.1 3.60 0.570 1.42

A large herd in Wisconsin provided data on which has several groups of cows with daily dry matter intakes and milk production (Table 2). The values in Table 2 represent a weekly average including daily dry matter and milk production values.

Table 2. Comparison of six groups of cows on a Wisconsin dairy herd listing days in milk (DIM), cow numbers, milk yield, dry matter intake (DMI), feed costs (FC), and dairy efficiency (DE).

Description DIM Cow Milk DMI FC DE
(Cow group) (days) (#) (lb) (lb) ($/cow/day) (lb milk/lb DM)
Fresh 1st lact 27 54 42 44 $3.06 0.95
High 1st lact 124 196 79 50 $3.15 1.58
Preg 1st lact 225 100 64 53 $2.67 1.21
Fresh 2ndlact 54 90 73 51 $2.73 1.43
High 2nd lact 80 215 101 58 $3.65 1.74
Preg 2nd lact 276 220 67 51 $2.85 1.31

Table 2 illustrates high DE associated with high producing groups. Young cows appear to need additional nutrients in late lactation (pregnant 1st lactation group) for growth and replacing body condition. The DE values for pregnant 2nd lactation group is higher than 1st lactation cow group and could be related to better body condition and less nutrients needed for growth. One herd in the Illinois Dairy Focus group provided data from their four groups of cows on their farm in Table 3.

Table 3. Comparison of milk yield and dairy efficiency in a northern Illinois dairy herd.

Milk yield Dairy Efficiency
(lb/cow/day) (lb milk/lb DM)
105.8 1.76
83.7 1.63
74.1 1.42
68.0 1.35

A similar pattern is seen in this herd compared to the Wisconsin herd. As milk yield drops, cows convert a lower proportion of dry matter to milk production. This herd also broke down their feed costs by feed classes. I have listed Illinois dairy extension values reported at the 2001 Illinois Area Dairy Days for your comparison and consideration. This herd has similar values compared to our guidelines. While costs for feed groups varied compared to our values, their economic feed bench values were excellent.

Table 4. Comparison of feed costs partitioned by feed classes between a northern Illinois dairy farm and University of Illinois guidelines

Feed N. IL Farm U of IL
Forages 0.92 1.04
Grain energy 0.58 0.40
Protein supplement 0.98 0.40
By product fiber 0.25 0.50
Minerals/vitamins 0.09 0.30
Additives 0.16 0.10
Consultant value not used 0.10
Total 2.98 2.84
DM intake (lb/cow) 52.4 46.0
Milk (lb/cow/day) 74 65
Feed cost    
($/lb DM) 0.057 0.061
($/100 lb milk) 4.02 4.34
DE (lb milk/lb DM) 1.41 1.41

In summary, DE can be a valuable tool to evaluate performance on your farm and compare it to farms in your area. The "power" in DE is monitoring how it changes on your farm and between groups (if you have this data available). The following factors will impact DE.

  1. Higher milk yield increases DE as it dilutes out the maintenance requirements typically 12 to 13 pound for a Holstein cow).
  2. Longer days in milk will drop DE as cows replace lost body weight and divert nutrients to the unborn calf.
  3. Young cows will have lower DE if they need nutrients for growth.
  4. Cows losing body weight will have higher DE as they "borrow" nutrients from their body to support higher milk yield.
  5. Cows gaining body weight will have lower DE values.
  6. High quality forages should increase DE as more nutrients are digested and available to the cow.
  7. Environmental stress will lower DE as nutrients are diverted to cool, warm, or correct for the stress condition.
  8. Pasture-based cows may have lower DE as maintenance requirements can increase 20 to 50 percent above confinement animal. If pastured cows have less stress or consume high quality forage, this could improve DE values.
  9. Cows experiencing rumen acidosis or other digestive disorders will have lower DE values as less feed nutrients are produced or absorbed.
  10. A feed change or additives that improves feed nutrient availability or digestibility will increase DE.
  11. When milk prices are low, dairy efficiency can be another management factor to evaluate performance.

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