Dairy cows eating along the feed bunk.

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Feed Efficiency Drives More Milk Production and Dairy Profitability

6 minute read

While there are several factors that can impact profitability and productivity on a dairy operation, there is one figure that dairy producers need to be monitoring regularly: Feed efficiency.

Feed efficiency is defined as the amount of milk produced or the amount of growth per pound/kg of dry matter consumed. In other words, it shows how efficiently the cows are transforming feed into milk.

Feed efficiency is an important figure to monitor because it determines your profitability. You are more profitable if you are able to produce equal or greater amounts of milk while decreasing feed costs.

The Economics of Dairy Feed Efficiency

While feed efficiency is an important figure for dairy producers and needs to be monitored regularly, producers must also look at profitability. A high feed efficiency does not always equate to high profitability.

If you look at two dairies and see that one has a higher milk production, that doesn’t necessarily equal profitability. Even if that dairy is producing more milk, if they are spending more money on feed to achieve this, it will eat into their profitability.

At the same time, higher feed efficiency doesn’t mean you will have higher milk production. You may be maintaining milk production at a consistent level, but if you are spending less on feed to do so, you will be more profitable.

A high feed efficiency means little if you are not profitable because of it.

How to Measure Dairy Feed Efficiency

When calculating feed efficiency, you should take into account energy-corrected milk. Check out this calculator to find out how much energy-corrected milk you are producing. 

To determine feed efficiency, take the amount of energy-corrected milk produced and divide it by the actual dry matter intake. However, for a successful result, you need an accurate dry matter intake measurement.

Accurately Measure Dry Matter Intake to Determine Dairy Feed Efficiency

Getting an accurate measurement of their dairy cows’ dry matter intake is one of the biggest hurdles dairy producers face when calculating feed efficiency. Calculating milk production is easy, but accurately measuring dry matter intake requires an extra step.

While it isn’t hard to keep track of dry matter intake, most dairy producers don’t have a process for doing so accurately. They know how much feed they are putting in front of their cows, but they will not weigh back the leftover feed. They can get close by estimating, but that lacks accuracy.

For the most accurate feed efficiency calculation, you should accurately measure your cows’ dry matter intake by weighing back unconsumed feed on a pen-by-pen basis.  Measuring intake per pen will allow you to accurately formulate a ration for a specific stage of lactation.

Industry Benchmarks for Dairy Feed Efficiency

While you may be able to see general trends by looking at the feed efficiency of your entire herd, it will not tell you much about the different groups or what is affecting feed efficiency in your dairy operation. It’s important to calculate feed efficiency for each group within your herd and compare those figures to the industry standards. The following is a table of industry benchmarks for feed efficiency, developed by Mike Hutjens, professor of animal science emeritus at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. It shows the industry feed efficiency benchmark for each individual group within a dairy herd, sorted by days in milk.

Environment and Management Impact Dairy Feed Efficiency

Nutrient partitioning is one of the biggest factors affecting feed efficiency in dairy cows. If cattle expend more energy moving around or battling stress, there will be less energy and fewer nutrients available for milk production. For this reason, dairy producers need to consider the distance cows are walking from the barn to the milking center and how many times per day they are being milked.

If you’ve ever put on a pair of rubber boots and walked through the mud, you know it takes a considerable amount of time and energy to get around. In muddy pens, cows will expend more energy getting to the feed bunk. Energy and nutrients will be diverted away from milk production and will be used for walking and exertion instead.

Environmental stress, like heat stress, can also affect feed efficiency by diverting nutrients away from milk production.

Ration Formulation Affects Feed Efficiency

While higher-quality forage can improve feed efficiency, it’s important to keep the diet balanced to avoid disrupting rumen function. Typically, concentrate feeds are digested more consistently and more thoroughly than forages, which are inherently inconsistent based on growing season, harvest and storage.

The most common way that dairy producers create an unbalanced forage-to-concentrate ratio is by feeding too much starch from grains. While this will possibly result in higher production and feed efficiency, it could eventually lead to a low pH in the rumen. A low pH leads to rumen acidosis and a disruption in fermentation, leading to decreases in dry matter intake, milk production and, eventually, feed efficiency.

Dairy producers and nutritionists can improve feed efficiency by balancing their cows’ forage with concentrate that’s formulated with protein, vitamins and performance trace minerals.

Performance Trace Minerals Improve Feed Efficiency

Source and level of trace minerals are important considerations when formulating a ration. Zinpro Performance Minerals® have been shown to reduce somatic cell count, improve liver function, increase milk production and improve overall hoof health.


Lameness is a significant animal wellness and economic issue. Lameness not only impacts animal locomotion; it is often due to inflammation. Left uncontrolled, the results can be reduced milk yield, reduced fertility and increased risk of culling, leading to considerable economic costs.

Mammary Health

Somatic cell count is a marker for chronic inflammation in the udder. By lowering chronic inflammation in the dairy animal, you can lower somatic cell count, allowing more energy and nutrients to be used for milk production versus fighting inflammation.

Zinc from Zinpro® Availa® Zn, as well as combinations of complexed zinc, manganese, copper and cobalt found in Zinpro® Availa® Dairy, Zinpro® Availa® 4 and Zinpro® Availa® Plus show feed efficiency improvements in heifers and fresh cows by improving liver function and gut integrity, thereby reducing inflammatory responses. This results in less energy and nutrient expenditure going towards the immune system and more going towards milk production and improving feed efficiency.

To learn more about choosing the right proven nutrition solution for your dairy operation, visit the Zinpro® Availa® page below.