Dairy Sense: Keeping Milk Components Strong

Heins Family Farms in Higginsville, MO. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Production perspective:

Maintaining strong levels of milk fat and milk protein are important to animal performance and for optimizing milk income. So far milk price is averaging well over $1.00/cwt higher compared to the same time last year. Based on the Class III milk price projections it appears this trend will continue into the fall. If pounds of milk components can be maintained in excess of 5.5 pounds per cow on average, then theoretically milk price should get a boost, and herds can capitalize on enhanced milk income. The challenging time, especially for milk fat, is during the spring and summer months when temperature and humidity rise. It is never too early to start strategizing how to avoid a slump in milk components.

There are a couple of scenarios that can occur over the next few months that jeopardize milk fat and protein. The number one culprit is anything that compromises dry matter intake. Cows consume pounds, and reduced intake can impact the amount of fiber and energy the cow is receiving. The timing of reduced components usually happens when cows are turned out to pasture. In the spring when pasture is lush cows can be consuming a lot of dry matter from this source. Rate of passage can be extremely high, and the result is inadequate fiber and energy. If the amount of rainfall is lacking moving into the summer months, pasture quantity can start to diminish. The issue during this time is assuming cows are consuming more pasture dry matter than what is available. The result is compromised dry matter intake, along with reduced carbohydrate intake. If these scenarios continue for any length of time, body condition can start deteriorating, which can negatively affect milk production and components. 

Another scenario that can depress milk fat is herds utilizing a lot of corn silage and high moisture grains. If starch levels in the ration are high and it is highly digestible, then this can result in subclinical acidosis. This situation can become worse when heat and humidity increase, which decreases dry matter intake and subsequent fiber intake. Another wrinkle can be added fat either from oil seeds or bypass fats. Bypass fats, depending on the inclusion level, can decrease intake adding complexity to the problem. The question asked every year at this time is: “How can milk fat depression be corrected?” The smarter question would be: “How can milk fat depression be avoided?”

There is no simple solution to avoiding problems with components, however, focused management and monitoring can go a long way to quickly resolve the issue. If grazing is a significant practice during the spring, then strategies to slow rate of passage and increase energy density are needed. There is an energy expense to the cow when pastures contain extremely high protein levels. Checking body condition score and bulk tank components can serve as a guide on when to make changes. Limiting the time on pasture may have to be an option to avoid reduced performance. If during the summer months “pasture” is more of an exercise lot, then revisit the feeding strategy to include more stored feed to keep intake where it needs to be. Operations not utilizing pasture should focus on testing feeds for starch level and starch digestibility and adjusting rations accordingly. Added sugar during these times can take the pressure off starch as the main energy source and minimize the occurrence of acidosis.

The best feeding management approaches are worthless if cow comfort does not factor into the equation. If pastured cows are spending most of their time in the shade lying down, they are not eating and thus animal performance is reduced. If housed cattle are panting because there is inadequate air flow and no misters and they are not eating, again reduced animal performance is the result. The best ration program is not going to work if cows do not eat. Think now what can be changed this year to keep components strong. Strive for a goal of greater than 5.5 pounds of components to optimize milk income to take advantage of the increased milk price projected.

Action plan for maintaining strong milk components.

Goal – Maintain milk components greater than 5.5 pounds from May through September.

  • Step 1: Review herd performance from previous year to determine when problems start occurring with either components or production. 
  • Step 2: Working with the feeder and nutritionist, start the conversation on strategies that can be implemented to off-set depressions in components and/or production. 
  • Step 3: Develop a schedule for monitoring body condition score and bulk tank information. Depending on what the data is showing, schedule routine meetings to review results and possible changes to reverse any negative results.
  • Step 4: Check fans and misters for proper operation. For pastured cattle have a back-up plan if the heat and humidity are keeping cows from grazing.

Economic perspective:

Monitoring must include an economic component to determine if a management strategy is working or not. For the lactating cows, income over feed costs is a good way to check that feed costs are in line for the level of milk production. Starting with July 2014’s milk price, income over feed costs was calculated using average intake and production for the last six years from the Penn State dairy herd. The ration contained 63% forage consisting of corn silage, haylage and hay. The concentrate portion included corn grain, candy meal, sugar, canola meal, roasted soybeans, Optigen® and a mineral vitamin mix. All market prices were used.

Also included are the feed costs for dry cows, springing heifers, pregnant heifers and growing heifers. The rations reflect what has been fed to these animal groups at the Penn State dairy herd. All market prices were used.

Income over feed cost using standardized rations and production data from the Penn State dairy herd.

Note: Penn State’s March milk price: $18.76/cwt; feed cost/cow: $6.09; average milk production: 84 lbs.

Feed cost/non-lactating animal/day.