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Lowering heifer feed cost without compromise

July 31, 2013 | 0 comments


With feed costs at an all-time high, growing replacement heifers presents dairy producers with cost challenges.

At the University of Wisconsin Integrated Dairy Heifer Research Facility located at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, a crew of researchers, including Dr. Pat Hoffman, dairy science professor, are tackling the issue by limit feeding heifers, feeding tropical corn, working with eastern Gamagrass and managing dry mater intake.

Hoffman shared the research on July 24 during the first of a three-part webinar series, "Honing In On New Heifer Replacement Research", being presented by Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

The Arlington ARS dairy has 560 cows with a two-time-a-say rolling herd average over 29,000 pounds and pays Marshfield ARS a daily fee for raising its heifers.

"We work together to reduce costs," said Hoffman, who works at the Marshfield facility.

Dairy cattle feed cost is a pretty simple thing, Hoffman said. It’s feed intake x cost of the diet x days on feed.

One percent body weight rule

In the web presentation he designed to be challenging and thought-stimulating, Hoffman referenced data from a 2009 Integrated Dairy study that showed dairy heifers eat one percent of their body weight in NDF as they grow from 300 to 1,400 pounds.

"This little thumb rule can really be used to manipulate and think through heifer feed intakes", he said.

It also answers the age-old question of whether corn silage contains too much energy (making heifers fat) or whether heifers consume more feed when fed corn silage. "The answer is ‘both’," Hoffman said.

Applying the "one percent of body weight" rule, pretty much whatever a heifer is fed, she will eat 10 pounds of NDF. For example, a heifer fed corn silage at 40 percent NDF will eat 25 pounds of dry matter intake to get her 1 percent. When fed alfalfa/grass at 50 percent NDF, she will eat 20 pounds.

"It is important to understand that what this really means is cost", Hoffman said, figuring it at $1.80 a day versus $1.40. "That’s feed cost savings and that’s very, very real."

It can be a challenging concept, he admitted. "With lactating cows, we’re always after maximizing dry matter intake. With dairy heifers, we’re trying to control dry matter intake because the more feed the heifers eat, the more it generally costs."


Cheap sources of NDF

Dairy producers need cheap sources of NDF to control feed intake, but small grain straw is not the answer. "The Integrated Dairy standpoint is: we don’t like straw. It is hard to handle, hard to get in, and it’s expensive," Hoffman said, quoting prices of $200-$300 per ton.

In addition, dairy heifers sort their food and will if they are fed straw, especially when bunk space is limited.

"Straw is a very effective source of NDF to control intakes and reduce caloric consumption in diets composed of corn silage and alfalfa silage, but in an overcrowding situation where heifers can sort, you will get variation in growth," Hoffman pointed out.

Unfortunately, the UW research program’s quest for cheaper NDF for heifer diets has not been successful, Hoffman said. One candidate was tropical corn, which he described as a high-yielding source of NDF and a "wonderful crop to feed dairy heifers".

It’s very static at 6-7 percent protein, doesn’t get ears, grows 14 feet tall and yields six tons of dry matter.

It needs 31 leaves to go through its reproductive stage, which will not be until after Labor Day, and it doesn’t dry. It needs hard frosts and several weeks to kill it, but it can work as a straw or oatlage replacement.

The problem is sourcing the seed. It is difficult to acquire true tropical corn seed, Hoffman said, which is day-length insensitive. There is, he noted, a large breeding program underway at University of Illinois.

Corn stalks/corn stover is another readily-available candidate, but it has a handling issue.

"Some dairies are very successful with using corn stover, but others struggle with their mechanization", Hoffman said. "But as far as a feed, it is a very good source of NDF that can be economically made and used in heifer diets."

While lime treatments can be used to improve the NDF digestibility of corn stover, Hoffman questioned whether it is necessary.

"It seems like it may be the opposite effect of what we really want in a heifer diet," Hoffman said, noting treatments may be more appropriate in a beef feed lot where higher digestibility is a plus.

Another candidate, eastern Gamagrass, has been under investigative research at the ag research station for over six years. It is a clump-forming perennial that is grown in Kansas and seems to overwinter well enough in Wisconsin.

It is harvested once around Aug. 1 and yields four tons to the acre with 77 percent NDF and eight percent crude protein. Interestingly, the crop makes non-sortable heifer forage. "Dairy heifers can’t figure it out," Hoffman said. "It is very unique."

However, eastern Gamagrass is not of the timid. "I’m not sure we’re ready, agronomically, to plant this crop," Hoffman said, citing questions about variety, weed control, planting, harvesting and fertility.

However, once the Gammagrass is in the silo, there are no problems, he said. The grass is very effective in the diet. It is also "very cool" that it is a perennial that, so far, has not suffered winterkill or winter damage.

"It is an agronomical issue, not a nutritional issue," Hoffman observed, noting the grass grows in crowns and is traditionally burned off. "I’m not sure the DNR is going to allow us to burn."

Another option to reduce heifer feed costs without compromise is by controlling feed intake through precision or limit feeding. The limit feeding concept, meaning heifers are not fed all they want, has been explored through a number of Integrated Dairy trials since 2005.

"Limit feeding is not necessarily for every producer, but our research has defined options for people should they want to control feed costs this way," Hoffman said.

For instance, a full feed diet for a 1,000-pound bred heifer would typically be around 50 percent NDF, while an 85 percent diet would be 44 percent NDF and an 80 percent diet would be 40 percent.

"I would remind people that these diets are still high forage diets," Hoffman said, likening the denser, more caloric limit feed diets to eating one Snickers bar instead of six rice cakes.

Uniquely, when feed intake is slightly controlled, a heifer has less feed to process through her digestive tract, so feed efficiency goes up.

Studies show feed efficiency expressed as pounds of dry matter per pound of gain is 13.2/1at 100 percent (full diet), 10.7/1 at 90 percent, and 11.1/1 at 80 percent or even better.

"That’s a significant feed savings and done not by the heifer regulating her intake, but by human intervention regulating her intake," Hoffman said.

In addition, fecal excretion is slightly reduced. "What does not go in the front end does not come out the back end", he observed.

A 1,100 pound Holstein heifer fed 90 percent of a full diet will excrete five pounds less wet fecal material per day. For a farm with 1,000 heifers, that’s 5,000 pounds less manure, simply because it’s not fed, Hoffman pointed out.

Multiple trials show limit feeding has no effect on milk production, Hoffman said.

In fact, a study conducted by Penn State showed a slight increase; nor does there appear to be any difference in lactation dry matter intake. "We really can’t find any long-term implications to slight limit feeding," Hoffman said.

However, there are behavioral issues that dairy producers using precision-feeding need to be careful with. There is a lot of difference between feeding a dairy heifer at 90 percent of her intake potential and at 80 percent, Hoffman said.

"We would advise caution with feeding heifers at 80 percent. There will be vocalization, but at 90 percent it is almost not discernable."

As practical implication, bunk management for limit feeding means providing feed for eight hours a day. "That’s it. That’s all we do at the Integrated Dairy," Hoffman said.

The bunks are checked after eight hours. If the concrete is slick, the heifers are slightly underfed. "We want a few feed particles remaining after eight hours of feeding. Our research shows us that that’s about 90 percent intake," Hoffman said.

If there are many feed particles remaining or the bottom of the bunk is covered with feed, the heifers are being overfed for the system. Adjustments are made very cautiously and in a controlled manner.

For example, feed at 8 a.m., then check and score the bunk at 4 p.m. Depending on it’s condition, the next day’s feed might be the same, increased if the bunk is slick or decreased if more than a few particles remain.

Given management’s view that "you shall eat all your feed", Hoffman said, the next day’s feed might be decreased by 5 percent or 2 percent. Decreasing feed when there are leftovers in the bunk teaches heifers that they should clean their plate. "That sounds kind of harsh, but feed is simply too expensive to waste," Hoffman said.

Beef feedlots also use feed intake manipulation to maximize feed efficiency. "This is really an adaptation of that system," Hoffman noted.

Nor should there be aft bunk waste. "This is without compromise," Hoffman said. "Feed is simply too expensive to have cattle throwing it on the ground and walking on it, so look behind your bunk and see how much feed the cattle are wasting."

One of the biggest feed cost savings is actually remodeling the bunk, he noted.

He pointed out that heifers are playful when they are on full feed. They love to waste food by throwing it on their neighbors, dragging it out of the bunk and dunking it in their water. That behavior changes when their groceries are slightly limited.

Hoffman underlined that the limitations involved are very small. "Instead of 20 pounds, we are talking about 19 or 18 pounds. It’s very minor, but it’s enough to make the animals eat all of their food. They come to the bunk and they mean business," he said. "They are somewhat trainable that way and we see it all the time here."

At the Integrated Dairy, Hoffman said, almost all of the bred heifers have a slight feed restriction for months 15-22 of their life to help control feed costs and inventories.

The webinar series continues on Wednesday, Aug. 14, with Hoffman discussing dairy heifer management in the age of genomics. On Wednesday, September 18, he will address the pitfalls and paradigms of dairy heifer management.

For questions, information or to register for the webinars, visit www.pdpw.org online or call 1-800-947-7379.

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