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Improving Feed Efficiency

If you read any of the dairy mags, attend any conferences or spend any time on dairy sites on the internet you know that discussions concerning feed efficiency (FE) in dairy cows have become a common topic. To its credit, within recent years, the dairy industry has finally begun to take a serious look at FE in a manner that other food animals and poultry industries have for a long time.

Improving Feed Efficiency with Tools of Trade

The challenge to the utilization of FE as a performance measuring stick lies in many variables on-farm as well as how the cow synthesizes the end product. As a biological system, the typical dairy farm has more than its share of things that vary on a daily, if not hourly basis. As the dairyman and the nutritionist know well, feed composition and a host of other factors affect milk volume and components that affect the actual value of the sellable product. Even small dietary, environmental or management alterations or modifications can create variation in production that ultimately affects FE measurements and more significantly affects profitability.

Some of the Advantages

Given that feed cost is number one in production expenses making up anywhere from 50 to 75% of the total daily expense, obviously, it makes sense to develop a better understanding of how to go about generating the most revenue and profit per feed input unit. Books could be written on all the factors that come into play affecting feed cost, FE and ultimately milk and component production and resulting value. All factors that must be managed by the best means possible, even those which are largely beyond our control.

As countless studies, reports, papers, articles, etc. have reported, improvement of FE starts with good management, production and feeding of quality ingredients, particularly forages, and the control of as many of the variables as possible in an effort to create a stable, consistent production environment. This is the absolute foundation for achieving optimal FE and requires a significant degree of commitment on the part of the dairymen and his support team (employees, nutritionist, vet, etc.).

Additives – the Right Tool for the Right Job?

Even before the dairy industry switched its focus to using and improving FE, an entire industry was thinking about an ever-growing number of products designed to be fed to the animal. Initially, the goal of the use of such products was to improve the milk and component production by the cow, improve animal health and reproduction and to ultimately increase on-farm profitability. Now we look at these products and what they can do to improve our measurements of FE but the end game is to improve farm profitability (i.e. more specifically, income over feed costs). These tools, both individually and in combination, can have a marked effect on herd and farm performance but remember there are NO magic bullets and NO replacement for sound management.

Before adding any products to a feeding program you must consider:

  • Is everything done from a management perspective to address the basics, including:​​​

  1. Sound day-to-day management of all farm activities – attention to details

  2. Production or purchase of high quality, consistent, digestible forages and feed ingredients

  3. Minimizing animal stress

  4. Maximizing cow comfort

  • Accurate development and delivery of a properly balanced diet that focuses on maintenance of rumen stability and timely delivery of nutrients necessary for optimal production, good herd health, and reproductive performance.

  • You should review dietary additives on what they can and should deliver, is cost effective and what expectations are.

  • Understand that there is a difference between a nutritional supplement and an additive. Supplements (amino acids, fats, vitamins, etc.) fill in a gap or make up a nutrient deficiency in the diet because of its lack of availability in the basic ingredients, inadequate digestibility, or some animal response to specific supplemental levels. Additives are generally non-nutritive and create a specific response either in the rumen (rumen fermentation modifier) or at some other location in the digestive tract.​


  • Enzyme sources

  • Antibiotics – Rumensin®

  • Dewormers

  • Toxin binders

  • Yeasts

  • Yeast derivatives (cell wall components)

  • Direct-fed microbial such as bacteria and fungi cultures

  • Essential oil/plant extracts​

These can all play a specific role and produce a specific response in the animal and in the feeding program. However, as more of these products come onto the market we struggle to keep up with what they do (or suppose to do). But another factor also comes into play – what is the result when we use these products in combination? Are the combinations complimentary or antagonistic? Do they simply cancel one another out? For the most part, there is very little research into how the various products act in combination.

A complicating factor is that virtually every additive type now enjoys a substantial list of products. And manufacturers each have their own “story” and substantiating research. But there is very little comparative data. So having a clear understanding of which product within a given additive type is the BEST is elusive.​

Take yeasts, for instance. At this point in time, there are somewhere around 50+ companies. They are selling some type of yeast product in the United States. Not all of these are “conventional” yeasts. And not all of their target is at the dairy cow, but a great many are! For the dairyman and his nutritionist to effectively compare all of these products is impossible (or at the very least, highly improbable). 

The same situation exists with the other additives as well. The microbial product market is even more convoluted with almost 70 companies. These companies are making and/or selling a bacteria or fungi or something related.

Essential Oils

Essential oils (EO) are also known as plant extracts. They are a relatively new additive to the dairy industry. It has shown to have some efficacy in modifying rumen activity for more efficient performance. The complicating factor with EOs is that there are many individual types. And for the most part, the products actually sold in the market are combination products. They have two or more (generally more) individual EOs. Usually, they show to have one effect on the rumen microbial population or another. These products have been developed based on research. So finding an effective combination is challenging.  


Again, there are numerous manufacturers and distributors for all of these products. And the number is growing as more companies jump on this bandwagon. Or they come here from other countries, introducing their products. In many cases, new products are introduced and marketed under the guise of “just like product XYZ.”


The purpose of this article has not been to create confusion for the dairyman. Or complicating his decision-making process, or that of his nutritionist. It is, however, to bring to light that the field of additives available for the enhancement of FE is exceptionally large and diverse. 


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