Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Focus on buying rations based on energy content

John Donworth

'What do you think of that?" The farmer had taken a docket out of his pocket and asked me to comment on the quality of the 16pc protein ration he had in his feed bin. But with the purchase already made and in the feed bin, in my view, the farmer had the cart before the proverbial horse.

Like most dairy farmers, he had bought the ration on the basis of its crude protein content. This is entirely the wrong approach. Rations must be bought on the basis of their energy content. Then protein content, followed by minerals and finally fibre.

Energy is the most important aspect of the dairy cow's diet. Whether she is eating grazed grass or ration, this statement holds true. If cows are not milking as well as they should, the problem is usually lack of energy. Similarly, if milk protein is not right, it usually comes back to energy. And if cows lose too much body condition, it's because of energy. Energy drives everything and it is the most limiting nutrient in dairy production systems.

Funnily enough, if you ask farmers what is the most important nutrient in any ration, they will tell you that it is energy, but when you ask them would they buy on that basis, they will tell you no. Why not? The farmer will respond by saying the compounders will not give them the information. But if they don't ask for the information they certainly won't get it.


Unfortunately, there is no onus on the part of the compounder to give the farmer this information. So it is up to the farmer to demand information on this critical component.

By law, the compounder has only to state the crude protein content, the fibre content, the ash content and the amount of minerals and vitamins and, of course, they must also state the list of ingredients making up the ration in descending order of inclusion.

In other words, the ingredient with the highest inclusion level in the ration is at the top of the list. The last piece of information was perhaps the last 'concession' of the compounders to their customers.

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So, what is the target energy level in the ration you currently have in the bin? I bet you two tickets for the Munster versus Ulster game that you don't know. The target energy level for any dairy ration if you are feeding more than 3kg is 0.94 UFL.

Don't worry what the term UFL means. It's a benchmark figure and all you need to know is that the ration must have a UFL value of 0.94 on a fresh weight basis.

Energy and protein are not one and the same thing. High protein does not mean high energy. For example, one can purchase an 18pc crude protein ration with an energy value of 0.94 UFL. But you can also purchase an 18pc crude protein ration with an energy level that may only be 0.85 UFL. Equally, you can have a 14pc crude protein ration with an energy value of 0.94 UFL.

So, what was on the farmer's piece of paper? For the list of ingredients, see table 1, above).

This ration started off well with four decent ingredients, all with a UFL value of around 1. But that's the last of the good news. Wheat feed, previously known as pollard, has a UFL value of 0.74. Next we have sunflower. Its UFL value is a miserable 0.56. Palm kernel has a UFL value of 0.76. Soya has a UFL value of 1.01 but it is listed below molasses -- and molasses is typically included at 5-8pc.

The fact that we have three very poor ingredients in the top seven should send a message about the energy content of this ration. The energy content is therefore likely to be diluted significantly.

So what's likely to be the make-up of a good quality ration? See the example in table 2, (above).

The ration has a crude protein content of 18pc. The ingredient with the lowest UFL in this ration is rapeseed. It has a UFL of 0.91. Soya hulls have a UFL value of 0.92, but all the other ingredients have a UFL value of 1.0 or greater.

All the ingredients in this ration are good and I would expect its UFL to be at least 0.94.

Profit Monitor data shows that dairy farmers are feeding around 700kg of ration annually to each dairy cow. So a farmer with 100 cows is buying 70t of dairy feed. At €250/t, that's a total of €17,500. That's quite a sum and it is the dairy farmer's largest expense, but the supplier is holding back on a critical part of the jigsaw.

There will always be a market for 'cheap' low-energy rations and, in a way, we cannot blame suppliers for providing these when we have farmers who will buy them.

John Donworth is a Teagasc dairy specialist based in Kilmallock, Co Limerick

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