Todd Speltz

by Todd Speltz


Have you ever forecasted your butterfat production for the year?  Believe it or not, it happens to be easier than forecasting the weather!  As nutritionists, we are constantly looking for new ways to evaluate ration costs and increase your return on investment per cow while maintaining the goal of having healthy cows.  This process has a lot of pieces and requires cooperation from the producer, the nutritionist as well as the farm’s agronomist.  Butterfat forecasting consists of identifying the lows in your farm’s butterfat production throughout the year and strategically planning the production of feeds to take advantage of the most ideal scenario.  As a result, the farm will notice that the rest of their year’s feeding needs will be very closely predicted in regard to inventories, carryover, contracting of commodities, allowing for time in storage and most importantly—the maintenance of the herd’s butterfat throughout the entire year.

Why do we forecast butterfat?  We know that butterfat is easily the most variable component in your milk tank.  That variation occurs because of things like the altering of rumen pH, heat stress, rate of passage, starch availability, fat sources and feeding patterns—just to name a few.   As it turns out, a clear majority of these factors can be used to predict very closely what the risk of butterfat depression is on your farm.   We know that a healthy butterfat is a great indicator of a healthy cow.  Typically, butterfat and protein levels in milk are what we are paid highest on—not volume of milk.  Pounds of milk may look great on paper, but the total pounds of components are what makes up the meat of the milk check.  A healthy butterfat will also help the cow to more efficiently convert metabolizable protein to milk protein, giving us another star on our milk check.  Let’s look at some of the considerations to be made when entering into the butterfat forecasting world.

Home-Grown Forage Contributions

Feeding a lot of home-grown forage is what happens to be preferred by nutritionists.  The forage harvested on the farm should be determined by comparing total inventory needed and the acres available to utilize.  During the process of butterfat forecasting, we are able to identify which forages contribute the highest potential to butterfat production and which ones hinder us from reaching our full potential.  High quality forage starts with involving the agronomist, the nutritionist and the producer.  Making sure that a plan is in place to see the forage from its initial planting, through the growing season, into harvest and through storage and feed out.  Clean and healthy forages greatly improve the health of a cow, allowing you to feed more forage and reduce purchased feed costs.

Fatty Acids

Each feed that a cow eats has a certain level of fat in its composition.  We know that certain sources of fat can alter the cow’s response to produce butterfat in her milk.  Identifying the fat contribution and the type of fat within each feed indicates whether it will be detrimental or helpful to the production of butterfat.  Unsaturated fatty acids found in excess in corn products and unprotected soy products will have a negative effect on the cow’s production of butterfat. Introducing even 2 grams of the wrong unsaturated fatty acids to the cow can depress butterfat significantly.  Fatty acid technology is very valuable in manipulating a cow’s nutrition plan.  Many of our vegetable and animal fat products, though cheap, have lots of unsaturated fats in them.  Some of the commercial fat products, though a bit more expensive, are designed to balance out the fatty acid load that a cow can tolerate, thus improving butterfat production.

Starch Digestibility

Amid all the other factors that affect butterfat production we also must consider the availability of starch in our corn products.  The speed at which starch is digested is heavily dependent on how well the prolamin complex of the starch is broke down.  The prolamin complex is what holds all the available starch together.  For the cow to most efficiently utilize the starch, it is important that the prolamin be broken down.  This process is heavily manipulated by how well the actual corn kernel is processed, the moisture of the product, time in storage and the aerobic stability of the feed.  In an ideal corn silage feed, we would expect the kernels to be fully processed (<4.75 mm), the whole plant moisture to be 65-69% moisture, in storage for at least 2 months and to be treated with a reputable inoculant.  The availability of the starch to the cow helps the cow to buffer its rumen and maintain a consistent rumen pH.  This helps minimize rumen upsets.  If the rumen pH drops below a 6.2, this is when we see cow health be compromised.   The starch carbohydrates also help the rumen bugs to efficiently utilize nitrogen; this can be measured through the creamery reported MUNS (milk urea nitrogen).  It is vital to the health of the cow that we pay attention to the speed of starch digestion in the diet.

When forecasting for butterfat, it is important to keep all of these factors in mind to match up feeds that have the best possible outcome to maintaining a healthy diet that in turn produces butterfat.  This may mean planting a different percentage of acres to crops that best match up with acres available, allowable storage and time ensiled.  Heavy considerations can also be made to identify the correct usage of byproducts in your feeding system.

I encourage you to visit with your available Ag Partners Nutritionist and have a conversation on butterfat forecasting. Having a proactive plan is always a good idea.