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6 tips to stretch protein supplies and lower your feed costs

February 10, 2021
Cow eating

Ration formulation for improved efficiency and lower feed costs.

We all know that 2020 proved to be a roller-coaster year for commodity markets, and as we have seen over the past number of weeks, 2021 appears to be following a similar track. Grain markets rallied through the end of last year, and due to the poor availability of supplies globally, prices are continuing to skyrocket. This is happening against a backdrop of a macro-environment impacted by a weakening U.S. dollar and China ramping up its soybean imports. Considering these factors, how do we address the key challenges of mitigating risk and remaining financially and environmentally sustainable while optimizing cattle performance?

Overcoming the protein challenge

To sustain profitability, dairy and beef producers need to examine their feed management and nutritional applications. By using good-quality forage, supporting rumen health and using a tailored ration formulation, producers can cut back on their losses and keep their operations running more efficiently — thereby resulting in potential cost savings. This organizational agility is of paramount importance to overcoming the protein challenge.

Forage quality

With the continual rise of corn and soybean prices, producers should make the most of cheaper high-fiber feeds, especially forages. Plan to make the highest-quality forage possible, since this is a major component of the slowly digestible part of ruminant diets. Forage is the most variable feed ingredient in terms of its digestibility and nutrient composition, and it comprises a greater proportion of the ration than any other feedstuff. High-quality forage is more digestible, so you will be able to feed more of it. Rumen health and productivity will improve with the use of high-quality forages, and as such, forages can influence feed efficiency in dairy and beef cattle through the maintenance of a desirable rumen environment.

Support the rumen

There are several elements to increasing feed efficiency in ruminants, but one of the most important is to use the rumen to its full potential by supporting the activity and growth of rumen microflora. This enables dietary nutrients to be extracted from the diet as efficiently as possible. The nutrients provided to the rumen microflora must be well-balanced in terms of their fermentable energy and protein supply. Fermentable protein nutrition must be specifically adapted to maximize rumen microbial population activity and growth, as different populations have different requirements in term of how nitrogen is supplied.

Wasted energy means wasted profits

For years, nutritionists have overfed crude protein to meet the amino acid requirements for their desired milk yield or daily liveweight gains. Besides the significant increase in input costs, this also results in poor nitrogen efficiency and, subsequently, higher nitrogen excretion, which is detrimental to both the environment and the producer’s profits. The dairy cow inherently suffers as a result of poor nitrogen efficiency, since excessive nitrogen is converted first into ammonia and then into urea — which is partially recycled, but the vast majority is excreted. Ultimately, there is an energy loss associated with this process due to the detoxification of ammonia into urea. This energy cost comes at the expense of productivity and biological functions. The energy required to excrete excess nitrogen in a dairy cow is equivalent to up to 2 kg (4.4 lbs.) of milk and can lead to:

  • Body condition loss
  • Increased blood and milk urea levels
  • Issues with reproductive performance

Lower protein doesn’t have to mean lower performance

With the tightening of global protein supplies, producers may face a shortage later this year and will need to stretch their existing stocks. But what if lower-protein diets could be fed while still maintaining performance? The possibility to increase nitrogen efficiency using Optigen®, a non-protein nitrogen technology from Alltech®, pushes the boundaries of protein nutrition.

Nitrogen from Optigen is more efficiently captured by rumen bacteria and is transformed into additional microbial biomass — so, why couldn’t the total dietary nitrogen supply be reduced? Researchers from Penn State University1 have looked at dairy cattle ration formulation and decreasing the crude protein supply from 16.5% to 15.5% while increasing the forage quantity fed to cows through the introduction of Optigen.

In this study, Optigen partially replaced heat-treated soybean meal and canola meal. This resulted in:

  • Better nitrogen efficiency (from 28.8% to 30.8%, respectively, in the control and Optigen groups)
  • Greater milk production in the Optigen group (41.6 vs. 40.5 kg/day)

This resulted in an elevated income over feed cost of $0.16/cow/day.

When it comes to beef cattle feed rations, a recent meta-analysis2 highlighted how the partial replacement of vegetable protein with Optigen exhibited a consistent improvement in the liveweight gain and feed efficiency of beef cattle. The many positive effects included an average higher liveweight gain (by 8%) and better feed efficiency (by 8%), with the inclusion of corn silage enhancing the effects of Optigen. A simulation analysis based on these benefits indicated that feeding Optigen to gain 440 lbs. in 1,000 cattle would:

  • Reduce the time to slaughter by 9 days
  • Reduce feed costs by $18,000
  • Support a reduction in the carbon footprint of the beef unit by 111 tons of CO2 equivalents
"Beef cattle cost savings"

These studies clearly demonstrate how innovations like Optigen can make improved animal performance, reduced environmental impact and financial gains not only possible but compatible.

Optigen delivers consistency when you need it most

In a world of quickly evolving change and disruption, consistency can seem idealistic. However, for a high-producing dairy cow or feedlot animal, consistency in how we feed and manage them is crucial for them to reach their optimal performance and profitability. At Alltech, we have identified “the 7 Ps of consistency” that we associate with Optigen. Over the last 15 years, these “Ps” have evolved, and several of them have been reinforced during the global pandemic — for example, the importance of securing a robust supply chain for proteins and the ability to continue supplying producers and feed companies around the world in the face of adverse conditions. There was also a question: Would Covid-19 diminish the sense of urgency around climate-friendly food production? Recent policy announcements around the world reiterated the point that food systems cannot be resilient to crises such as the current global pandemic if they are not sustainable.

With radical increases in vegetable protein costs, global attention will focus on the inherent nutrient variability between consignment and place of origin. Optigen is a solution that provides consistency when we need it most — from helping producers reduce their reliance on protein sources that fluctuate in price or that simply aren’t in supply to ensuring consistent animal performance and overall production profitability.

"consistency to reduce reliance on protein sources"


In summary, there are ways to lower feed costs and sustain the profitability of your dairy or beef enterprise during the current protein challenge and beyond.

Here are six tips to help you:

  1. Increasing prices and demand for proteins mean that close attention should be paid to the nutritional composition of vegetable protein stocks, which could vary in their consignment and place of origin and, as a result, put animal performance at risk.
  2. Make the most of cheaper high-fiber feeds, especially forages, but ensure that those forages are high-quality.
  3. Support the rumen and ensure that it is being used to its full potential. This will enable nutrients to be extracted from the diet as efficiently as possible.
  4. Consider feeding balanced, lower-protein diets to stretch your protein supplies, which may be necessary in case of a shortage later this year.
  5. Include Optigen in your dairy and beef cattle rations as a nutritional solution for lowering your dietary protein while increasing efficiency. The partial replacement of bulky vegetable protein sources with Optigen, a concentrated nitrogen source, also creates more space in the diet to increase the inclusion of cheaper home-grown forages.
  6. Take this opportunity to look at how environmentally friendly the feedstuffs you use are, as protein sources can carry a high carbon burden if they are not sourced from responsible production, ultimately impacting the long-term sustainability of the operation.



  1. Varga et al. (2009). Effects of Optigen® on milk production, N balance and diet cost in high producing cows. Unpublished, Department of Dairy and Animal Science, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA.
  2. Salami, S.A.; Moran, C.A.; Warren, H.E.; Taylor-Pickard, J. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Slow-Release Urea Supplementation on the Performance of Beef Cattle. Animals 2020, 10, 657.


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