Manage the rumen to find more profit
Dairy producer Bradley Johnston, of Tap Root Dairy, Fletcher, N.C. puts it more bluntly. “Starting now, I believe we’re going to see the worst six months the dairy industry has ever seen. By next January, I think we’ll see a million fewer cows in production,” he said.
To help compensate, Johnston and others have fine-tuned rations and herd health to the micro level. More herd managers are finding a focus on rumen microbiology –- specifically, managing rumen bacteria — can reduce costs. In this economic environment, these tiny things can be a big help.
Managing rumen bacteria at the micro level lowers feed costs by enabling the cow to produce her own protein and, therefore, reduce dependence on purchased proteins, while safely increasing carbohydrates.
“You’re simply taking advantage of the role bacteria play in the rumen,” said Mike Biese, nutritionist at Intensive Dairy Care, Green Bay, Wis. “Adding the correct types of bacteria will affect rumen fermentation and can offer a more profitable way of feeding cows.”
In Johnston’s case, he decided to make a change after spending a significant amount of money to overcome herd health challenges – only to see things worse.
“Getting started on this kind of diet, which goes against what we’ve always been told, is a matter of understanding microbiology and realizing that feeding more carbohydrates is a good thing,” Johnston said. “We went from running an 18% -18.5% protein ration to a 16%-16.25%. We went from 24% starch to 32% starch, and we increased nonfiber carbohydrates from the mid 30%s to about 44%. And we quit worrying so much about our forage-to-grain ratio, because it wasn’t a problem. All in all, using microbiology we were able to cut feed costs and our cows are healthier.”
Dairy microbiology works
Tom Nauman, head nutritionist for Hoober Feeds, in Gordonville, Penn., said nutritionists know that when they create a favorable rumen environment for bacteria, bacteria pay the favor back by providing nutrients cows will use for growth, production and reproduction.
“Nutritionists live and die by microbiology,” said Nauman. “We depend on bacteria to supply a great deal of nutrients. Because of the duties bacteria perform, we can maximize use of economical feeds. Corn silage, dry hay crops and so forth work just fine because of the way bacteria in a cow’s digestive system act.”
To function well, the cow’s rumen needs food, proper temperature and a balanced pH level. These three elements, when in balance, create a rumen environment where bacteria flourish and do their jobs in a manner beneficial to the cow.
A common problem occurs with highly digestible, or “rich” feeds. Feeding dairy cows these so-called “fast” feeds to improve productivity can compromise the rumen environment by inadvertently dropping pH.
According to Biese, “Fast feeds can cause a buildup of lactic acid, which drops rumen pH. The drop in rumen pH causes rumen acidosis, which leads to lots of health issues.”
Nauman agreed. “When we feed dairy cows to improve productivity, we also can upset the rumen environment by dropping the pH,” he said. “But, now we’re able to counteract change in the rumen by feeding specific bacteria that consume some of these pH-lowering nutrients and turn them back into usable energy for the animal.”
Studies conducted by Priority IAC, Inc., a dairy microbiology company in Manitowoc, Wis., founded by Richard Breunig, a former farm manager, show that, when adding the correct types of bacteria, you can feed much higher levels of carbohydrates for energy and keep pH balanced, thus maintaining cow health. (See Figure 1.)
More carbohydrates, lower costs
Carbohydrates are the key energy source for rumen bacteria and are essential for bacterial growth. A rumen with a high population of bacteria will provide lots of energy through volatile fatty acid production. It also will create significant amounts of microbial protein, lessening dependence on purchased protein.
“Over the last 10 or 15 years, the nutrition world has come to be afraid of carbohydrates,” said Nauman. “We tended to think carbohydrates were the culprit. But, we’ve discovered the culprit is too much protein.”
This is exactly what Wisconsin’s Brown Star Farms, Gillett, Wis., discovered in a roundabout way. They had been adding a specific type of bacteria to the ration with what seemed like pretty good results. Then, one year, a dry spring followed by a lot of August rain resulted in phenomenal corn. With corn so rich, the cows suffered loose manure.
“At the time, our nutritionist suggested we back down on the corn,” said Matt Bjelland, co-owner of Brown Star Farms. “We kept taking out corn silage and adding haylage, but the problem only got worse. We needed to change the ration if we were going to use microbiology to its best advantage. So we reversed course, putting silage back to where it was, and adding five pounds more corn than what we were doing originally. Within a few days, manure stiffened.”
Bjelland said reducing corn and corn silage was creating too much soluble protein, which led to loose manure. The problem wasn’t too much corn or too much silage, it was too much protein. They made the problem worse by dropping corn and silage levels.
“Now,” said Bjelland, “our milk urea nitrogen (or MUN) typically runs 8 to 9, where previously it was about 12.”
Bjelland said his cows are getting a lot more out of what they eat. “With the bacteria we’re adding, the cows are manufacturing their own protein from the high starch and carbohydrate levels we feed, so we’re buying less.”
Do dairy producers find microbiology intimidating? Producers Johnston and Bjelland think it can be, but add that, once you understand how bacteria work, changing the way you feed your cows makes sense.
“You’re not really feeding the cow as much as you’re feeding the bacteria in the rumen,” Johnston said. “Cows eat to sustain life. Rumen bugs have to eat, too, but for a different reason. When you look at it that way, microbiology is understandable.”
Bjelland believes that sometimes people think microbiology sounds too complex and potentially risky. “When we first discussed the ration with our nutritionist, he says he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if he recommended it, thinking the cows would fall over dead from the high starch and carbohydrate levels. Now, he’s recommending the ration to others.”