New approach to feeding cows benefits both farmers and the environment

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Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

In milk production, economic and environmental benefits can go hand in hand. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre has developed unique insights into how nitrogen is used by dairy cows. Nitrogen is an important part of a cow’s diet because it is the key component of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

The findings of the research conducted by Hélène Lapierre and Daniel Ouellet, research scientists studying animal nutrition, will help improve the formulation models used to develop feed rations for dairy cows. The new formulations, which will cut the protein content of the rations, will increase revenues for dairy farms while reducing releases of pollutants into the environment.

When the proportion of raw protein in cows’ feed rations is reduced and balanced with an appropriate amount of essential amino acids, it allows the cows to more effectively use the protein they consume. The cows produce the same amount of milk and milk protein as before, but they consume less raw protein. Since protein is the most costly component of the feed, it is a win-win outcome for the dairy farm. By saving on feed costs for its cows, an average farm can increase its revenues by about $0.15 per cow per day, which amounts to almost $4,000 per year.

“Amino acids are like letters, and proteins are like very long words. To spell a word correctly, you need to have all the necessary letters. Balancing rations for amino acids is a little like playing Scrabble but asking for the letters you want instead of choosing them at random. You will need fewer letters to write a certain number of words if you can choose them. By the same token, the cow can make the same milk protein with fewer amino acids if the ration is well balanced.”

– Hélène Lapierre, research scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Reducing the raw protein in rations also noticeably reduces the amount of nitrogen emitted by cows in their manure and especially in their urine. When rations are adjusted with the appropriate amount of amino acids, nitrogen emissions quickly decrease by 15%, without affecting the cows’ productivity. Since nitrogen contributes to groundwater pollution, to the production of nitrous oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas), and to the formation of fine atmospheric particles, this new approach offers a means of reducing this pollutant in the environment.

Reducing the proportion of protein in dairy cow rations from an average of 18.1% to a realistic 16.5% would enable Canada to cut its nitrogen emissions by 17,000 tonnes a year and save $77.5 million annually.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is actively involved in research to provide Canadian producers with innovative processes that can improve their competitiveness and contribute to sustainable agriculture development.

Key discoveries (benefits)

  • Dairy farmers could enhance their farms’ productivity and environmental performance by adopting the new cow feeding approach developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientists.
  • By using an appropriate balance of essential amino acids in feed rations for dairy cows, an average farm can increase its revenues by about $0.15 per cow per day, or almost $4,000 per year, by saving on feed costs for its cows.
  • Reducing the proportion of protein in dairy cow rations from an average of 18.1% to a realistic 16.5% would enable Canada to cut its nitrogen emissions by 17,000 tonnes a year and save $77.5 million annually.

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