Farming Magazine - September, 2014


Dairy Nutrition: Showers Likely

By John Hibma

Photo by ewastudio/

Over the years, I've come to appreciate the mildly sarcastic but truthful statement repeated all over New England: "If you don't like the weather now, wait a minute." Out in California, where I grew up, fluctuating weather over the majority of the year just doesn't happen. Especially during the summer, cloudless skies may persist for days, often weeks, at a time. In portions of central and southern California, storm systems run out of steam, leaving behind a few cirrus clouds lazily drifting by for a day - and then it's back to hot and dry. Here in the eastern half of the country, however, variability is the norm, and a weather front moves through the region about every third day, taking the weather from dry to humid to stormy to humid to stormy and back to dry again, all in the space of a week.

During the past decade, the price paid to dairy farmers for their milk has also had a stormy element to it. The milk price is never the same two months in a row, and planning for the highs and lows is a never-ending challenge. However, during 2014, we've been enjoying an unusually long run of "good weather." April of this year saw the highest blend price ever, with the value of milk protein topping $4.70 per pound. The year 2014 looks like it will end with an average blend price of over $24 per hundredweight.

However, it appears there may be storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The price of all milk components has already begun to slip downward, and predictions are for them to continue in that direction for many months. Next year may not average $20 per hundredweight for standardized milk components of 3.5 percent butterfat and 3 percent milk protein. To help counteract the lower milk price, dairy farmers should be looking to maximize milk components to add extra value to the milk they produce.

During 2014, the high milk price has allowed for some of the best-ever milk-feed margins (income over feed costs). However, by the end of 2015, Agri-Mark, Inc. is forecasting the milk-feed margin for Northeast dairies to drop below $10 per hundredweight as the price of milk declines. Ironically, dairy farms must continually produce milk no matter what milk and feed prices may be, and the two continually fluctuate relative to each other.

For the time being, the higher milk price this year should be encouraging dairies to maximize milk production along with components. This has been one of those rare years where you can afford to feed a little more grain, especially to the higher-producing fresh cows. Even as milk fat and milk protein prices start to decline, it's still imperative that we maximize the amount of fat and protein in the milk produced in order to maximize the milk's value.

Optimal rumen fermentation is the cornerstone of making lots of milk and milk components. Diets that match carbohydrate fractions with the correct nitrogen sources (peptides, proteins and amino acids), along with highly fermentable fiber, will result in healthy, well-functioning rumens that maximize microbial production for fat and protein synthesis.

In years past, milk's value was based mostly upon fat levels, with less emphasis on protein. Today, milk protein is valued much more highly than milk fat. It's been well-known for decades that the production of milk fat is influenced primarily by the amount of roughage in the dairy cow's diet. However, more roughage in a diet quite often means less energy, and energy is a precursor to the production of milk protein. Over the years, we've gained a better understanding of the digestive physiology of the cow and now know that improving the digestibility of fiber in roughage will also provide more energy in a dairy cow ration.

Manipulating milk protein response in dairy cows can be challenging. Meeting the metabolizable essential amino acid requirements along with metabolizable energy will have a significant effect on milk protein synthesis. A complex interaction of amino acids and glucose metabolism synthesizes milk protein in a cow's udder.

The essential amino acids, largely lysine and methionine, come from both rumen microbial protein and dietary protein that escapes the rumen; all of it is absorbed in the small intestine. Glucose, synthesized in the liver, comes largely from propionate, an acid produced in the rumen. Propionate comes primarily from the microbial fermentation of grains and byproducts, not fiber. The amount of protein and propionate that are available in the rumen at any given time is a major factor affecting milk protein synthesis.

Management factors such as cow comfort, body condition, lactation stage and genetics have been shown to influence milk protein production. For most dairies, however, diet formulation and nutrition management will usually result in the quickest and most significant changes in milk protein percentage. The two most influential aspects of nutrition management are: (1) feeding diets that are properly balanced for both carbohydrates (starch and fiber) and amino acids, and (2) consistency of the feeding program.

When the prices of both fat and protein are below $2 per pound, as they were at times in 2009 and 2010, few dairy farmers are going to be able to make ends meet. The value of butterfat has continued to stay mostly flat, but has managed to get above $2 per pound for most of 2014. Milk protein has been the savior of the milk price in the past few years, with values surpassing $4 per pound.

Sunny weather will surely give way to showers. In spite of what the milk prices may be - high or low - any time dairy farmers can ship more pounds of milk solids, the value of their milk will increase. Dairy cow diets that are balanced correctly will enable cows to produce more milk and milk components that result in more dollars per hundredweight.

John Hibma is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Cooperative Farmers Association in Manchester, Connecticut.