When considering the dramatic price swings in feed ingredients in recent months, historically high bypass fat pricing might stand out the most. Due to the low inclusion of these energy-dense fatty acid products, big swings in price per ton may not mean big swings in total feed cost per cow. A $250 jump per ton in a calcium salts of fatty acid product with a half-pound feed rate is a bump of 6 cents per cow. In comparison, depending on how much corn a dairy feeds per cow, a $50 per ton jump in corn might put a hefty 30 cents on top of already high feed costs. That doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned about the rising cost of added fat, but it does offer some perspective.
The problem with added fat is how the cows do if you elect to reduce or remove the highest energy ingredient in the ration. Many ingredients, like corn for energy or soybean meal for protein, have a bit of a production function feel, where it is easy to compare added cost to expected production improvements. I am not sure the same cost-value approach works with added fat.
When discussions with clients started in response to historically high fat product pricing and even questions about availability, I started asking our clients a question: “Why do you feed bypass fat products?” In nearly every instance, the answer had to do more with body condition and reproduction than it did milk production.
The genetic focus of the modern dairy animal is to make milk. In early lactation, these cows are going to try very hard to milk and will make great sacrifices in body condition if ration energy is too low. All cows lose some body weight. It is in managing this weight loss where the battle is won. It seems in most rations, added fat products are a big part of the solution to this problem.
If we look at a previously unthinkable price per ton for fat and decide we just can’t use it, what is the result? In a traditional economic sense, it would be nice to look at the cost savings realized by not feeding it, compare that to the expected loss in income, and see if the cost reduction is the right decision. With fat, though, if you decide to reduce or remove it, the early lactation to peak milk cows might choose to milk close to the same level and literally melt away in front of your eyes. If you want to panic over body condition, go to a really big dairy where the cows that are in the days in milk range matching the lowest point on the body condition score (BCS) curve are all in one pen. This pen is where you might see the error of your ways.
Historically, the visual BCS of these cows tends to drive added fat feeding rates. It is seasonal, and it has a lot to do with success or failure around transition. When they get too thin, you will have to get your checkbook out to fix it. The better way, though, is to manage energy density and intakes in early lactation to set these cows up for success.
We know that thin cows have many risks, but chief among these is losses in reproduction. If we make the decision to cut cost by reducing added fat in early lactation rations, those savings may come back to bite us. Poor reproductive performance is a drag on the overall economic success of the dairy. Failures in getting cows bred today will add costs and losses through more culling and the fact that these cows that are longer days in milk eat too much feed and give too little milk. It is a killer!
Think in terms of cost per day
So, what is the right answer? First, think about all feed cost decisions as a cost per cow per day. Is the savings or investment worth the risk of lower returns now or in the future? There are some positives to the particular fatty acids in various fat products, but the main issue here is energy. It takes carbon to make milk, maintain body weight, and become pregnant. I manage this with the nutrient metric of net energy for lactation (NEL) in the diet. Adding fat is not the only way to increase NEL, but It is perhaps the easiest. Other ideas include improving forage quality and looking at opportunities to move some lower digestible forages into more highly digestible by-products like soybean hulls.
Greater energy intake is the goal, and we must keep cow health in mind. We can’t just keep feeding more corn. Energy intake can be increased either by increases in energy density or by increasing overall intake. Every situation will likely have its own best way to get there. The directive is don’t let cows get thin. Smart investments to avoid this risk will always have a good return.