Control Feed Costs with Amino Acids

Look at total ration costs when evaluating inclusion of trace ingredients in the diet. ( Lindsey Benne )

Breakthroughs in the past few years have helped more accurately model what happens inside the rumen. Doing so has helped us reap the benefits from feeding rumen-protected amino acids to cows. This is significant because through a combination of max-imizing microbial protein and amino acid supplementation we are able to lower diet costs and maximize production.


BT Feedlot Grain

The economics of feeding amino acids to cows is simple. Cows don’t have a nutritional requirement for protein, only for amino acids. Because amino acids are contained in small amounts in protein feeds such as soybean meal and canola meal, we have to feed several pounds of those protein grains to get a few grams of amino acids.

A cheaper alternative is to supplement with synthetic amino acids and take the savings by lowering canola and soybean meal. To do this, though, we need the correct calculator with the correct equations (model) to balance diets. There are a limited number of programs that use the correct model to precisely predict amino acid balance and forage digestibilities, which affect protein and amino acid yields from the rumen.

Feeding the first two limiting amino acids (lysine and methionine) in an average diet can cost approximately 20¢ per head per day. But we can save 15¢ per pound of canola we replace in the diet. So, we can replace several pounds of canola in a typical diet and quickly save 45¢ per head per day.

The benefits don’t end there. By supplementing amino acids, we can have a positive impact on milk protein, milk fat, reproduction and feed efficiency, which in turn increases profitability. As a side note, this is particularly significant in California now that the state is entering the Federal Milk Order and producers are getting paid directly for components rather than simply milk volume.


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Also important is that by reducing crude protein in a diet by 1%, we can lower nitrogen yield to the environment by 8% to 10%. The cow also uses less energy to eliminate this nitrogen waste product and in turn can make more milk and milk components.

One of the logistical challenges of feeding amino acids is it takes a very small amount to balance a diet. The most practical way to add amino acids to diets is through mill mixes and not directly on-farm. For example, we feed 20 to 30 grams or close to 0.04 lb. per head per day of lysine. The cost of feeding this small amount of lysine can result in large savings on soybean meal or canola, but at $6,000 per ton it can increase the cost of certain mill mixes even though the cost per head is only 20¢.

If one only looks at the raw cost of a mill mix, this can confuse matters and make the feeding of an amino acid like lysine seem expensive. This has been one of the challenges and reasons why I suspect the dairy industry has been much slower than the swine and poultry industries in adopting amino acid technologies.


Silage Feedout Technique Image

As we continue to get better at using what we know about how the rumen works, it is important we continue to improve in how we analyze feed costs of different diets. One of the obstacles to feeding amino acids, or other products that are included in trace amounts in the diet, arises when focus is placed on the cost of an individual portion of the diet versus the total cost of the diet. I encourage you to download the checklist provided with this article for tools to help you evaluate diet costs.

I like to use the analogy of a used car salesman when it comes to evaluating diet costs. A less scrupulous salesman will only talk about your monthly car payment. Then they will tack on necessary years of loan term to fit an inflated car price. Similarly, people can ask what you are paying for your mineral and take the focus away from your total diet costs. You can feed a cheap mineral and end up with a higher total diet cost. So while it is important to know how much each ingredient costs, use those prices to evaluate the total cost of your diet.


Enrique Schcolnik is a dairy nutrition consultant with Progressive Dairy Solutions. His work emphasizes improving overall herd health and production through sound ration design and proper implementation.

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