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Tackling feed waste and underutilisation next step in boosting margins

George Bro's

Achieving optimum efficiency and profitability has long been a priority for the Welsh dairy business of JWC George & Sons. And, with feed accounting for over one third of their total production costs, the potential for feed waste and underutilisation is the latest area to come under review.

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Michael and Rowland George, in conjunction with their wives Jill and Sharon, and Michael's two sons, Charles and James form the JWC George & Sons partnership at Brynhyfryd Farm, Pembrokeshire a 1,700-cow dairy herd split across two units.

Michael explains that over the last 20 years the business has expanded significantly, with the herd increasing from 250-head to where it is today. The genetic progression of the Holstein herd pedigree has been a key focus along the way and is something that Charles and James - who now play a key role in day-to-day management of the herd - are very keen to continue. 

"Genetics and breeding have been fundamental in producing high yielding cows that also have good fertility and feed efficiency traits," says Mr George. "On average, we're achieving 38 - 41 liters of milk per cow, per day, with annual yields currently sitting at approximately 12,500 liters." 

Cows at both sites are housed all-year-round and milked three times a day. Because of this, Michael says producing high volumes of good quality forage is the key to keeping feed costs down and driving profitable production.  

“We operate a multi-cut system, silaging 1,200 acres every 30 days throughout the summer to ensure we get as much forage in the clamp as possible,” he says. “Our total feed costs are around 11 pence per litre, which is over one third of our production costs. However, poor quality silage can drive this much higher due to increased reliance on purchased feeds to balance the ration.

“With maximum litres in the tank's primary goal, we feed a TMR that is high in concentrates and formulated to drive intakes. The current milking cow ration contains soya, rapeseed, maize corn, wheat and beet pulp as well as maize and grass silage. We also add water to reduce sorting and minerals to support overall health and fertility. ” 

Feed waste and underutilisation

Having struggled heavily in genetics and breeding to build a high yielding herd, the George Brothers are now focusing their attention on taking steps to refine their system, which includes scrutinising feed waste and underutilisation, to ensure that maximum efficiency is achieved. 

This has led them to team up with Alltech and KEENAN and take part in a new initiative that involves an on-farm assessment to look at the current level of wastage at critical control points throughout the feeding system and understand the financial impact of these losses.

Louise Clarke, a ruminating specialist at Alltech explains why Alltech and KEENAN are keen to help farmers address this issue.

“Feed is the biggest input for many dairy businesses. However, records suggest that as much as 25 and 45 percent can be lost as waste. The good news is there are many steps that manufacturers can take to help reduce these losses by providing they know where they are occurring and the assessment looks at four core areas; in the field, at storage, during feed-out and inside the cow. ”

Although the George Brothers are already running a very tight ship, the on-farm assessment identified storage, within the cow and feed out as key pinch-points. These three areas were assessed in further detail to understand the financial implications behind these losses.

"Feed losses during storage can be significant, especially for ensiled feeds," says Miss Clarke. “To calculate the level of wastage, ash loss off the top one meter of the clamp, temperature, visible top loss and the presence of mould were measured and analysed,” she adds. 

“The fact that the George family implements a multi-cut system allows them to take five or six cuts of silage a year. However, with a short cutting interval, care is required to ensure that all nitrogen applied is used effectively to avoid the risk of secondary fermentation within the clamp.

“Good clamp management is absolutely vital. And, on the day of the assessment, there was no significant record of feed waste in the clamp that could be attributed to a couple of key management factors. 

“For example, the clamp was flat and densely compacted, reducing the risk of moulding around the sides. It was also fairly narrow meaning they move across the face quickly reducing the risk of spoilage, ”she explains.

Of the four core areas within the cow is the largest area where feed underutilisation can occur. 

“Environmental factors are key contributors to losses within cows and factors such as cubicle availability and comfort, as well as ventilation and lighting are all important to promote dry matter intake and adequate rumen fermentation,” explains Miss Clarke. 

“The assessment revealed that the George Brothers housing offered sufficient feed and water space, just over 1 cubicle per feed space and 6m water space per 60 cows. They've also recently installed new fans and lighting, so the housing is well ventilated, with deep sand beds, offering an ideal environment for cows, ”she adds. 

Feed Conversion Efficiency (FCE) is vital to ensure that every kilogram of feed is converted into 1.5 fat and protein corrected litres of milk. Even a minor drop-in rumen function, due to unbalanced rations, inconsistency of diet presentation and reduced dry matter intake, all contribute to the underutilisation of feed inputs.

“Yellow health was an area during the assessment of where opportunities were identified,” explains Miss Clarke. “FCE currently sits at 1.4, with a target being 1.5 and this is currently costing the business £136,596 per year,” she explains.

Drops in health and fertility can also be key drivers of feed losses within the cow, although in very high yielding herds a compromise must be struck. "For the yields being achieved, the health and fertility parameters were very good, with calving intervals and services per conception currently sitting at 380 days and 2.5 respectively."

Feed out is also another aspect considered within the assessment. This looks at diet presentation, sorting and ration consistency, as well as taking into account the number of push-ups, heating records and physical feed waste on the yard.

"The George Brothers are pushing up every 1.5 hours and using a KEENAN vertical diet feeder fitted with InTouch to ensure loading inaccuracies are kept to a minimum and ration presentation is consistent, Again, but no significant records of feed waste have been identified at this stage."

Miss Clarke highlights that although the only key pinch point for feed waste and underutilisation within the system was losses within the cow due to a lower than target FCE, because of the large-scale and annual feed costs in excess of £ 2 million, the financial impact is high at just over £135k per annum.  

“It would be well worth the business looking at strategies to improve rumen function and FCE due to the high impact of an underutilised feed within the cow. One option to consider is the use of a live yeast within the ration to help prevent yellowing upset and improve digestion of grains within the diet, ”she explains. 

Mr George acknowledges that even though we pay close attention to detail, when it comes to feed waste and underutilisation there are still areas where improvements can be made. “We have recently invested in a KEENAN self-propelled feeder wagon as we believe this will improve our clamp face and give us more control over every feed unit that goes into our cows, leading to improvements in FCE.

Table 1: Financial impact of feed waste at Brynhyfryd Farm based on physical feed waste and underutilised inputs

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Brynhyfryd Farm Facts

  • 1,700 pedigree Holstein cows 
  • Housed all-year-round and milked three-times-day across two sites
  • Farm 1,900 acres in total (1,300 acres of grass for silage, 400 acres of maize silage and 200 acres of grazing for youngstock)
  • 38-41 litres per cow per day with annual yields of 12,500 litres
  • Total feed cost is 11 pence per litre (concentrate cost is 8.5 pence per litre)
  • Multi-cut system, silaging around 1,200 acres every 30 days in summer