A Cow-Side Investigation Into Cow Milk Production Potential

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Purina Animal Nutrition

Every dairy is looking for opportunities to capture more milk and improve components, and my role is to assist in uncovering these opportunities.

One particular herd that we work with asked me to come in and troubleshoot. They wanted to improve cow milk production, but hadn’t been able to accomplish the goal.
This southwest operation was a 4,500-cow start-up dairy. It was a modern facility with open lots. At the time, the herd was comprised mostly of heifers and averaged 72 pounds of milk.
Evaluating cow comfort, ration
Upon arrival, I walked the facility looking for areas to improve. Every operation, even the best- run dairies in the country, have opportunities to improve cow comfort. And, like other well-run dairies, the small opportunities to improve cow comfort were there. But the cattle looked good and healthy, and there was no lameness. The small adjustments that the herd could have made to further improve the already good cow comfort didn’t appear that they would have a dramatic impact on the herd’s milk production.
We evaluated the ration. The herd manager was already dialed in to maximize its ration ingredients by using rapid rumen degradable starch testing. However, the herd was not balancing its rations for amino acids. A previous experience with balancing for amino acids had soured the manager’s interest.
Overcoming feed cost-control limitations 
Like many operations, this dairy was driven by cost-control and adept at keeping the feed cost per head low. But the focus on feed cost per head alone kept balancing for amino acids out of the realm of possibilities of something to be considered again. The focus on cost control was also limiting the ability to drive marginal production and profit.
Research at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center has repeatedly shown improvements in milk production of 6 to 7 pounds when balancing rations for metabolizable protein and subsequently, lysine and methionine. Additionally, component yields of 0.3 pounds of fat and protein accompany this production improvement.1

These results have been shown to be highly repeatable in the field. This notable increase in lactation performance costs 36 cents per cow per day on average, yielding a 3 to 1 return on investment (ROI).
If a producer is receiving milk payments in a component market, the potential opportunity for ROI can grow substantially. Since the herd was also located in an area that paid on milk components, the potential for increased revenue would lower the feed cost per hundredweight and increase the herd’s profit margin.
Balancing for amino acids nets gains
After discussion of the lost milk production potential, we balanced the ration for amino acids. Metabolizable lysine levels were adjusted from 165 grams to 190 grams, and metabolizable methionine was increased from 41 grams to 51 grams.
Within a matter of two weeks, the herd gained 6 pounds of milk, 2 points on fat and 0.15 points on protein. While increasing feed costs by 47 cents per head per day (or $2,115 per day for the herd), milk component revenue rose by $1.27 per cow per day ($5,715 per day for the herd), yielding a 2.7-to-1 ROI.2 
Diet made the difference this time
Although the herd had tried amino acid balancing before, the difference this time around was that the energy and carbohydrate levels in the diet were correct. If the energy levels in the diet are not in balance, the cow will convert amino acids from a protein source to an energy source. Amino acid balancing becomes extremely costly if energy is not in balance, because the amino acids are being used for something they are not intended for. Meeting the cows’ energy needs and fiber needs first is key when balancing for amino acids.
Feedstuffs in the southwest, where the herd is located, also tend to be extremely low in lysine and methionine levels. Using a combination of ingredients provides a more complete amino acids profile to the animal; then you can finish meeting the requirements using a protected amino acid such as USA Lysine.  By using this combination of ingredients, we were able to effectively and economically meet the animal’s nutrient requirements and provide additional profit. (See Table 1.)
This herd has continued to balance for amino acids and maintain production and component levels.
Learn more about amino acid balancing and USA Lysine.

Table 1
Levels of metabolizable lysine and methionine typically available in feedstuffs.


1Based on Purina Animal Nutrition research studies (2011) and the average results of 5 field studies (2012).
2New York Field Demonstration, 2011.