Beat the drop: Recognise it early and protect your profits

In this series of articles over the next month, Alltech’s team of InTouch nutritionists will advise on detailed, implementable management and nutrition practices to help you beat the drop in milk solids on your farm this spring.

This spring has proved another challenging period on Irish farms. Prolonged wet spells and stormy conditions have kept cows indoors for longer periods.

Spring rotation planners (SRP) have had to be abandoned on most farms, with some farmers in drier ground practising on/off grazing, where possible, to minimise poaching.

With the main burst of calving now finished on most farms and a pickup in the weather, the focus has shifted to getting cows out grazing and driving milk production from grass.

Farmers will be looking to maximise output from cows. While driving milk yields in early lactation poses a risk of body condition score (BCS) loss and subsequently extended calving intervals, farmers must also focus on maximising returns from Ireland’s milk payment system.

It must be remembered that Ireland’s milk payment system is focused on kilograms of butterfat and protein. This is a function of milk yield and solids percentage. The task is to maximise all of these and get the cow back in calf, while also keeping an eye on total cost.

Pay attention to fluctuations

Historically, if farmers pay attention to their milk recordings or co-op report for the year, a general theme runs through them all. High-percentage solids for the first six weeks, then a drop in protein, followed by a drop in butterfat heading into the second round of grazing.

When analysing this data, it is more important to pay attention to the fluctuations rather than the overall level.

While these fluctuations are a result of dietary changes, ruminal upsets, etc, the farmer must recognise this as a direct loss in profits in his milk cheque and further hidden costs due to compromises on the cow as she heads into breeding season.

In order for farmers to beat the drop in milk solids, they must first be aware of the factors that are causing this drop.

Running out of steam

Generally, lower protein levels are linked to a deficit in dietary energy requirements but more importantly starch and sugar. High milk protein levels post-calving may be supported by a loss in cow BCS as cows are receiving inadequate energy intakes and are milking off their backs.

The drop in protein levels can be a sign of cows running out of steam, which can be counteracted with starch and sugar in the diet rather than just energy.

In terms of the drop in butterfat levels, there are many factors in the cow’s early spring diet that affect this, primarily low fibre levels and high levels of sugars and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the grass.

This inadequate diet leads to rumen pH dropping below the desired level of 6, further compromised fibre digestion in the rumen and milk fat depression.

As this drop in rumen pH is generally multi-factorial, and there is no single solution, we must focus on maintaining the rumen health of the cow. If this is compromised, then other issues, regardless of source, will be exacerbated.

There are many strategies that farmers can use on their farms. They should pay attention to the parlour nut they are feeding. The use of good digestible fibre sources in the parlour concentrate and the addition of products such as Yea-Sacc®, a live yeast from Alltech, will support rumen health.

Some farmers may look to supplementary or buffer feeding to support intakes and the transition to full-time grazing.

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