Cows go Dutch with new feed efficiency trait

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The next revolution in cattle breeding

Imagine this: a cow that produces more (premium) milk per lbs of feed she eats. She isn’t smaller or less healthy. She simply converts her feed into milk more efficiently. With 50% of costs on a dairy farm going to feed, creating more milk per kg of dry matter intake is the holy grail of herd profitability. Exactly why CRV invests to lead the field of breeding for feed efficient cows. Feed efficiency is the next revolution in breeding after genomic selection.

It’s finally here

Feed efficiency is a universal and enduring theme that stands to gain in importance in the coming years. It has been a key characteristic of breeding programs in the pig and poultry sectors but has hardly played a role of importance in the dairy sector until now. Collecting feed intake data has been difficult, but the arrival of genomic selection has given a new impulse to the development of breeding values for this trait. ‘There are clear differences between individual cows’, says Prof. Roel Veerkamp, researcher at Wageningen UR, mentioning one of the main reasons for reviewing feed efficiency more closely.

Feed for maintenance or milk

For the past several years, CRV has invested in the collection of data to find out how cows divide their feed intake energy between maintenance and milk:

1. What does she eat?; and 2. What does she need?

Efficient animals will eat enough to take care of basic maintenance and keep up milk production. Non-efficient animals will eat more than they need for basic maintenance and milk production. Individual feed intake and water consumption data was collected on over 4,000 lactating animals; which were in addition weight twice daily. This allowed the evaluation of milk production and body size in relation to feed intake.

What an animal eats needs to be in proportion with what yields. It doesn’t matter that she eats a lot as long as her production is high enough to pay for her appetite.

The breeding value: SFCM$

There are clear genetic differences between the feed efficiency of cows. In fact, the heritability is 0.30 which is on par with production traits. CRV developed a breeding value that indicates how much money is saved by breeding for cows that convert their feed into milk efficiently. We call it SFCM$: Saved Feed Cost Maintenance
SFCM$ is published as $ saved per cow per lactation. A higher $ value there more means that costs are saved as daughters efficiently convert their fee and use less for unneeded maintenance.  A negative $ value means feed costs are higher as this bull will generate daughters that eat more than they need given milk production and type..

What does it bring me?

Estimates from the USDA tell us that all total feed costs sum up to 11 cents per pound of milk (reference below) (  If we can improve feed efficiency by 5% – that would give us a benefit of 0.5 cent per lbs of milk. That doesn’t sound much but quickly adds up. On a farm level and at the national production average, that 0.5 cents equates to $115 savings per cow per lactation, and thus a $115,000 saving per lactation for a 1,000 milking head herd.  For the dairy sector as a whole, improving feed efficiency by 5%  represents an annual saving of roughly $100 million if you consider all suppliers.

Variation between bulls

Bull PTA Milk PTA Stature PTA feed intake feed used for maintenance (SFM) $ saved on feed cow/year
A 1393 0.24 0.78 -0.61 85
B 1659 -1.66 0.38 -0.33 46
C 1025 -0.3 1.28 -0.12 16
D 2910 -0.1 1.60 0.14 -19
E 801 0.8 0.59 0.30 -43
F 1925 3.17 1.42 0.57 -80

$ saved on feed is not just a simple relation to milk and body size.

If all is in proportion, the animal is efficient regardless. It’s the extra feed the animal uses beyond what she needs to keep up production and body size that makes her inefficient.

Take bull A: Daughters of this bull will eat 1.55 kilos of dry matter more per day than the average cow. This may lead you to believe that these animals are inefficient. However, with a daily production of 5lbs more than average, for which roughly 1.25kg dry matter is required,  whereas daughters of bull A only eat 0.78kg more and are therefore actually very efficient.

Bull F however shows an impressive PTA for milk production and stature. However, daughters of bull F eat a lot as well. Actually, corrected for milk production and body size, daughters of bull F eat a lot more than they need to. Thus, lots of feed is used for unnecessary maintenance and these animals costs an extra $80 per cow per lactation in feed that is not used for performance

More information can be found here:  Art. Saved Feed VT-ENG