Focus on Milk Protein

By John Hibma

Milk prices for 2013 look like they'll be a little better than they were in 2012, but not by much. The average price for butterfat in the northeastern U.S. was about $1.72 per pound for 2012. Milk protein averaged about $3.04 per pound. Agri-Mark's early forecast for 2013 is for butterfat to again average about $1.72 and for protein to average $3.46. Barring any unforeseen events, natural or economic, the average blend price for 2013 may be about $1.50 per hundredweight higher than it was in 2012.

The value of your milk is based on the pounds of components in the milk, not just on the volume. Everyone's blend price on their milk check is a little different due to the differences in components. Jersey milk contains higher levels of both fat and protein, and therefore has a higher value. However, because Jerseys don't produce as many total pounds of milk as Holsteins, for instance, the total revenue generated per cow can quite often be nearly the same for the two breeds.

Regardless of which breed of cow you have, the pounds of milk components produced per cow per day should be your main focus when evaluating the revenue that your cows generate. You will notice that the estimated value of milk protein for 2013 is approximately double the value of butterfat. It's been that way for many years now. While it's certainly important that butterfat levels are not ignored, the potential for increasing the value of milk for most dairy farms comes from increasing the protein levels in the milk.

Increasing the protein level in milk has been a challenge for dairy scientists. Our understanding of milk protein synthesis has lagged behind our understanding of butterfat synthesis. Over the years, nutritionists have been inclined to ignore milk protein because it has been so difficult to change. What researchers now know is that the amount and profile of amino acids absorbed in the small intestine, along with adequate blood glucose, are the two key factors that influence protein levels in milk. Merely increasing crude protein in a dairy cow diet will not increase milk protein.

It all starts in the rumen. The best protein in a cow's diet actually comes from the expired rumen microbes that do the fermenting of feedstuffs. They have an amino acid profile similar to milk, and it's been found that this "ideal protein profile" absorbed in the small intestine will have a positive influence on milk protein. A proper balance of carbohydrates and protein coming from feedstuffs will help proliferate a healthy population of rumen microbes.

The second part of the puzzle involves feeding highly fermentable forages that will enable the microbes to synthesize the compounds that will later be synthesized into glucose in the liver and be sent into the bloodstream. These two processes must work in conjunction with each other in order to increase the protein in the milk.

Rumen microbes, however, provide only about 55 to 60 percent of a cow's metabolizable protein (MP) requirements. The rest of the MP must come from dietary protein that also contains proper ratios of amino acids. Some of this comes from high-quality protein sources, such as soybean meal or canola meal. Two of the most important amino acids affecting milk protein as well as overall milk production are methionine and lysine. Commercial forms of these two essential amino acids, which bypass the rumen and are absorbed directly in the small intestine, are now available and have excellent research behind them.

Let's take the aforementioned predicted prices for butterfat and protein, as well as the price of $.405 for other solids (OS) for 2013. A herd of cows with a 70-pound milk average, a 3.7 percent butterfat test, a 3.2 percent milk protein test and a 5.7 percent OS test will produce total revenue of about $13.82 per cow per day. If the milk protein drops to 3 percent (other tests remaining the same), the milk revenue will drop to $13.33 per cow per day. This is a drop of nearly 50 cents per cow per day. For a 100-cow dairy, that's $50 per day, or about $18,000 per year.

Of course, improving milk components usually requires an increase in feed cost. A dairy farmer must make a careful evaluation of the cost to get that extra revenue. However, in most cases, the increase in revenue will more than offset the increase in feed cost.

For the most part, the onus for improving milk protein falls on the back of the producer. Factors such as cow comfort, close-up and transition cow diets, as well as the initial energy status of a fresh cow, will all have an effect on milk components over the course of the lactation. There is no magic bullet when trying to improve milk protein efficiencies.

As we go about trying to improve milk protein percentages, there are a number of important questions to consider:

In these tough economic times of higher feed prices, it's difficult to throw more money at a feed program. A tempting and relevant question that needs to be asked is: Would it be more profitable to just improve milk volume and not focus on milk components per se? The answer often lies somewhere in the middle. Improving both components and volume will increase revenue. In most cases, a properly formulated diet that improves milk protein will pay for itself, and at the end of the day there will be an increase in net milk revenue.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Cooperative Farmers Association in Manchester, Conn.