The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears

Episode 08 - Feed-efficient cows for a better tomorrow

February 23, 2022 VikingGenetics Season 1 Episode 8
The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears
Episode 08 - Feed-efficient cows for a better tomorrow
Show Notes Transcript

Feed-efficiency is one of the hottest topics is cattle breeding right now. But how do you actually become more feed-efficient as a farmer? How do you save feed costs, reduce climate impact and improve the welfare of your animals? 

A high-tech farmer and a feed-efficiency expert will give you latest news on feed efficiency. They will tell you all about the new CFIT Technology and Saved Feed Index — and how these tools can help you breed for a more sustainable future.

Jan Lassen, PhD and Senior Project Manager, VikingGenetics
Anders Levring, Chairman of the Board, VikingDanmark and owner of two dairy farms


Louise Rønn Svane

Feed efficiency is one of the hottest topics in cattle breeding right now. Consumers are demanding lower methane emission from agriculture and up to 88% of the variable costs on a dairy farm relates to feeding the cows. But how do you actually become more feed efficient as a farmer? How can you save feed costs, reduce climate impact and improve the welfare of your animals? To give you the best advice on feed efficiency and to tell us more about the new CFIT technology and the Saved Feed Index, I've invited two experts to join me in the studio; Jan Lassen, Ph.D. and senior project manager and Anders Levring, chairman of the board, VikingDanmark and owner of two dairy farms. This is the BreedCast produced by VikingGenetics. I'm your host, Louise Roenn Svane. Hello. And a warm welcome, Jan and Anders and thanks for joining us today. Thanks for inviting us. Thank you. Wonderful. Well, Anders, let's start with you. Why is feed efficiency a hot topic in dairy farming today? When you are a dairy producer today, you need to look into the agenda in our society. And there is a clear agenda on climate and environment. And we as dairy producers, we need some tools to play into that role and give some value into climate and environment and I think CFIT can be one of the tools we can use as dairy farmer. Maybe not right now just in the beginning, but in the future, there will be a major role for CFIT on that agenda. And we'll hear just in a sec more about CFIT technology that you're referring to. But just fundamentally, why is feed efficiency relevant to the individual farmer? Why should I care about feed efficiency on farm level? Well, because feed efficiency is important for us as farmers. We know that in our herds we have cows that produce the same volume of milk. But we definitely know as farmer, they have a different feed intake. And we need some tools to pick out the most efficient cows because it has an impact on our economy on the farms - to be more efficient Lower input and higher output. What do you think is preventing farmers today from becoming more feed efficient? Because the tools haven't been available until now. But it's fine now and we look into a future where we have tools to handle the feed efficiency. Until now we haven't - on individual cows - had any tools to select the best cows based on feed efficiency. Jan, you've worked with feed efficiency in agriculture with universities and other scientists actually for more than a decade now. What do you see that a farmer can save in terms of money and also methane emission? If we look at those two components separately, then trials from research farms show that if you take the cows that are being measured at the research farm and you look at the most efficient versus the least efficient, then there will be more than €200 to save per cow per year. And that's a substantial amount of money if you take that to a full cow herd for a single farmer. So, for the feed efficiency, there's definitely money to save. And for the methane emission part, we believe that the initiatives that we are making here in VikingGenetics in a ten year span, the effect of that will be equivalent to taking away 50,000 diesel cars from the streets. And the reason why we can do something is that we already know that there is a genetic variation for these two traits here. And that genetic variation is essentially what we are exploiting in our selection among the bulls that we have in VikingGenetics. So to me, it sounds like there is a win-win because there is money to save. I think this is not just a win-win. That's a win-win-win because we can see that if we select the animals that are most efficient and improving the efficiency, we will also see that they will actually get a higher production. So that means that both the income will increase, but also the input will decrease. And then on top of that, at least, what we have seen so far is that there will be no negative consequences on health traits and reproduction traits and longevity, etc. So, that means that essentially this is a win-win-win. That was one of my questions; are there any negative side effects from actually focusing on feed efficiency? Not as we speak. Of course, that's something we need to follow and it's something that as Anders said before, that we haven't had the tools to exploit because there simply has been too little data on individual level. But we see that for the future it might be a possibility. Okay. So it sounds like there is great potential for better feed efficiency, both for each farmer and the industry in general. Let's look at some of the new technologies and solutions to improve the feed efficiency overall. You've both been part of the CFIT Technology Project and the Saved Feed Index actually from the onset, more or less. Jan, if maybe we start by explaining what is CFIT. What does it stand for? And what's the project all about? Yes, so, CFIT - that's an abbreviation for Cattle Feed Intake. We have chosen this abbreviation because the fit part tells us that of course with the cattle feed intake, we want to improve feed intake. But with the fit, we also want to make the cows more fit. So also using it for management decisions on farm. So it's based on 3D camera technology and the focus area has been threefold for now. We want to use the set up for identifying the cow while she's in the herd - based on the pictures of the back of the cow. Then we want to quantify the amount of feed that she's eating during a day. And that is done by... We take pictures 24/7. But then what we do is that before a cow is entering her head into the gate to eat, then we take a picture of the surface of the feed and then we let her eat. When she then takes her head out again, we take a new picture of the surface and then we subtract these two images from each other. And by that we can quantify the amount of feed she's eating at every meal, any day, any month, any year. And that's unique and patented. Then the third string is on predicting body weight. And we can do that with quite high accuracy today. Also, based on taking pictures of the back of the cow, then we can compare that to scale measurements of the body weight of the cow. And we then do quite precise prediction of body weight. That's essentially the technology. And separately, those three components, that's definitely not easy. It's complicated. But the big complicated thing that is to make this into a system that works 24/7. Having this data aligned with each other in the right timing and so on, that is really, really complicated. And unique. And it has taken quite a while to develop that. But we are at a good position today with it. So we actually reached 20 commercial herds now and more than 7000 cows are being monitored by these 3D cameras. And one of these is actually yours, Anders, because in addition to being a board member, obviously you're also a farmer. Why has this project - the CFIT Technology - been important for you to support, not just by being one of the farmers, but also supporting it from a board and resource perspective? The reason is that when you're a member of the board of a breeding company, you're very focused on giving value back to the farmers and support the farmers. And the feed efficiency, as you mentioned in the beginning, it's 70 to 80% of the cost on producing milk on a dairy farm. So it's very interesting if we can make the breeding give value in that direction, and that's very important when you're a board member in a breeding company. And there's a lot of focus on that. And that was the reason we looked positive on the project when it came up in the board and they asked for us to support this project. And it has been developed very much since we met it the first time, and we were looking into what we believed in from the beginning. We could make the true feed efficient index here. And that's very important to make a true feed efficient index where you measure the feed intake and the milk production and make an efficient cow out of it. And it's very important for the board in a breeding company to put value into the semen dose. And this is definitely a part of it. And it has been a very strong tool. On farmer perspective, it will be good to have the camera, too. And I'm in that position where I have this farm with the cameras, that's ten kilometers away from where I live. And it makes me able to see the feeding table all the day because I'm normally on this farm once a day. But I can follow the feed intake from the cows and I can see what is left on the feeding table. I can see if this cow isn't eating and as Jan mentioned, I can see the weight of the cows so it can be a tool when deciding to slaughter a cow, what weight the cow will have and what condition the cow is in. and it's telling me a little about that. I don't use it as a real management tool, but it supports me in my decision on the farms today. And it will be great when it will be developed more as a management tool because I think that's an opportunity to do that in the future. And that will be beneficial for farmers too. And especially in my case, where I am a bit far away from the cows. And so I can follow it on my phone and I can follow whereever I am, what is the feed amount on the table, how are my cows acting in the production? So it's a good tool. So the data coming from your farm and the other farms is all being gathered and obviously you have access to that, Jan, with your colleagues. We have a question from one of our listeners. This came in from Dylan, who texted us on Facebook when we announced we were doing this episode.

He says:

How is feed efficiency actually calculated? Yes, that's a really good question, Dylan. And the answer is not straightforward, but I'll try to guide you through it here. So, the Saved Feed index is essentially split in two parts. One part is covering the cost for maintenance, you can say. So, we know that a cow that has a high body weight will eat more than a cow that is smaller. And we have to correct for that. That's one part. The second part is that we also know that there is a metabolic efficiency, as we call it. So that means that a cow is using whatever energy that gets into the body of the cow. She's using that for production. And here production is mainly the milk production. And then we correct the feed intake for that. And then we can see how much is actually left. And we call that the saved feed. So, if she's eating less than we expect, then she is efficient. If she's eating more than we expect to produce this amount of milk then she is less efficient. We use those two components into a combined index, and then one thing that is very important is that we have the data throughout lactation. So, and both the research data that we have but also the data that we get from the CFIT farms, they provide this information throughout lactation because also previous studies show that feed intake in early lactation, mid lactation and late lactation that is not the same trait. So if we only have data from mid lactation, we could end up in a situation where we actually harm feed intake in early lactation and that is actually more or less the worst that can happen because feed intake in early lactation, that is really crucial for the cow to get a good start of lactation. So, that's the way we have set up the index. The index, I believe, is the right way to put up an index and had I had 1 million cows with data, I would have put the index up in the same way. But, today we only have a few thousand cows, so the reliability can still be improved but the index, I believe, is the right way to set up this index. And the saved feed index that you mentioned was launched relatively recently and actually when going in and looking through bulls from VikingGenetics, it's actually one of the things that I, as a farmer can go and look for. Why is this a useful tool, Anders, to farmers, to all of a sudden have a saved feed index? That's because as farmers, we need to deliver the demand from our suppliers and where we deliver our milk; the dairy companies, they ask for climate and environment improvement because they have some goals they put up and it is important for them. And when it's important for them, it's important for the farmers too. We need to deliver in the climate too, and to slaughterhouses, too and to dairy plants. So it's very important we deliver on this agenda here. And we need to improve to fulfill the goals put up for farming. One more thing that is important that's to avoid too much political limitation and it is very important we take some actions, us the farmers ourselves. Otherwise the politicians will come and help us to do it. And I think it's important we take that agenda and believe in the license to produce. That's one way we can do it here. And feed efficiency is definitely a tool where it's beneficial to have this and actually the only tool we can use right now. In the future there will maybe come more. But we know we have CFIT right now and we can develop CFIT and it will be crucial that we have that in the future, too. And we have one more question actually from one of our listeners. Dylan was from the UK. This is from Flemming in Denmark, who also wrote us. And maybe this one is for you, Jan.

He's asking:

Are some cattle breeds more feed efficient than others? For instance, Holstein compared to the VikingRed cow? Also, good question - competent listeners we have out there. So thank you for the question here, Flemming. And it's a relatively simple question, you can say. But the answer is very complex. I think it depends a little bit on many things. So, if you have the colour of the breed in your heart, I think no matter what I'll tell you, it will be difficult to persuade the farmer to change this colour in his heart. And you can come up with arguments for the one breed being a bit more efficient and better than the other. I think it's also in the same way as you can say that the Nordic Total Merit Index is complex. Then also feed efficiency is complex and it's based on many sources of information. If you just take it to the bone and say how many kilos of milk can you produce per kilo of dry matter intake you get in then many would probably say that the Jerseys could be a little bit more efficient than the other two breeds because the other breeds are a little bit larger. So they will eat more for maintenance. But if you have to take, for instance, how you produce meat for the future then I think the picture will turn around. Also if we have to focus as Anders has also been talking about how does this license to produce look in the future, we will probably see that cows in the future will eat feed that has less quality and is more variable then I'm not sure that these milk based breeds will do best. I would then probably think that the dual purpose breeds would do better. So, I think there are many ifs in this. I think the variation is larger within breed than it is between breeds. And I think that probably sums my answer down to that. I think you can come up with arguments if you want to that will qualify one breed over another but I think the main point here is that there's larger variation within breed than there is across breeds. I want to thank Dylan and Flemming here for writing as you said, very good questions. If anyone of you out there have questions for upcoming episodes, just always get in touch on or our Facebook page. We also have episodes coming up on actually Holstein and on VikingRed so there should be more information to gain about these particular breeds. And we do have an episode on Jersey cows as well. So we've learned more about the CFIT technology and certainly the Saved Feed Index. Let's take a peek at the future now and what feed efficiency might look like. Anders, from your perspective, what do farmers need to be prepared for within this very exciting, but also fast growing field of feed efficiency - let's say within the next five to ten years? There would be a higher demand for delivering into the climate and environment agenda in the future. There's no doubt about that. And it's where we can use the CFIT in the future. And I look forward to getting that income that Jan has mentioned here - 200€ per cow. If I could take the most efficient cow... But I know I can't do it tomorrow but in the five to ten years period - that's what I aiming for. That will be a part of my breeding plan to look into feed efficiency and select bulls that are good for feed efficiency so it's very important and it makes it more valuable to produce milk in the future if you use this tool here. So it is quite important to get more efficiency as farmer and every farmer knows that. That's a need we need to fulfill and we need to look for every day to be more efficient so CFIT that's definitely a tool we will use in the future and it will help us to have the license to produce in the future. There's no doubt about that from a farmer perspective. Why do you think that we're seeing such a great interest from milk processors, but certainly also from the consumers and governments... It's always that there's just a lot of interest in how are dairy farmers producing, how are farmers producing around the world. Why are we seeing this growth and interest? That's because we don't have any poor people and in our society they want more from the product we're producing in the future than what we have today. And this is definitely a part where we can put more value in our products and have a greener profile on our dairy products. And that will be needed and we will be more efficient. That's on the agenda and in our society. So we will deliver on that. We've talked about the CFIT technology today and a Saved Feed index. Where do you see this technology going? What else can it be used for in the future? Yes, thanks for that question also. That's really an interesting question because now I can both brag and have hope. But I think still I would like

to put that into two boxes:

one that is need to have and one that is nice to have. And in the need to have that is more data so that is the crucial part here on the Saved Feed index. That is that we get more data so that we get higher reliabilities on our indices. And that is crucial so that's definitely in the need to have. Together with documentation, also. I think also that it's important when we have an index that we can actually show also that we can document that the effect of using the index actually is coming on these CFIT herds where we have the cameras today, and then also I think another one that is in need to have and that's also what Anders has been talking a little bit about putting more value into an index and doing that by differentiating us from our competitors. And we will do that by having the index based on the CFIT data in the future. I think that's kind of the major part in the need to have box. Then we have a nice to have box and there we can think of other traits that could be measured using 3D cameras. We hope to be able to do something about lameness. We know that when a cow is lame or getting lame, then she will kind of curve a little bit more in her back. And by having these 3D camera pictures, we can actually follow that from day to day. And our hope is that we'll be able to predict lameness before it occurs, because that's also a huge cost for the farmers. If a cow gets lame, it's really crucial for the cow and expensive for the farmer. So if we can find these cows before they get lame, and they can actually do something before they get lame, it would be a much better situation. So I think that's the major part that we have in the nice to have box. But also together with something about eating behavior because we have this 24/7 surveillance, we can use that data to say something about the social hierarchy in the herd and the eating behavior. And it might be something that is a little bit more fluffy

and something:

how can a farmer actually make money on that? But I think actually that could provide more information to the farmer than we think as we sit here because the hierarchy is there. There's no need to discuss that. But it's hard to quantify if you don't have the information and that's something that we'll be able to have through the CFIT technology. And I'm glad you mentioned actually hoof health and lameness because we do have a podcast coming up on that particular topic and actually how to spot it early and prevent it. And I'm just realizing that actually camera technology in the future can be a real tool now. We hope we can help at least. Anders, from your perspective - I think you addressed it really nicely with the consumers, the climate, etc. - where is feed efficiency going? What's going to happen on your farm? How are you going to work with this in future, perhaps with other farmers, etc.? I would definitely work with it on my farm. It will be a tool when I make my mating plans. I will use it for that - to build more efficient cows and I think that will be important for all farmers in the future. And I think - well, you ask Jan if he has some fears about the CFIT and actually I have one fear about it as a farmer because I'd like to show my cows on shows too. And is this kind of cow going to disappear when we have CFIT and make more efficient cows? So, this cow who's eyecatcher for showman, too. Does she disappear from my farm? And there's a little humor in this because I think there will be room for her. The cow that doesn't produce well, she will not be so common in the future. When we have the CFIT. I'm quite sure about that. So I need to have some attention elsewhere than shows, so yeah... What do you think, Jan? Do you think Anders is losing his show cows over this? No, I don't think so. No, I think that because... That essentially is the challenge right here. That is to find... and we've been able to do that for generations. That is that we have a balanced breeding goal where we make increase for all traits all the time. So we will also make cows that can look pretty in the future together with being able to have higher mastitis resistance and lower mastitis incidence, better reproduction, better health, better survival, but also with good udders and good feet and legs. And so on. So, I'm sure we will also see beautiful cows in the future. Wonderful. Thank you. That's all for the BreedCast today. Thank you so much for joining. I want to thank our expert guests, Jan and Anders, who took us through some of the challenges and trends around feed efficiency, how you as a farmer can become more feed efficient and what the new technologies are all about. If you'd like to learn more, please visit our Saved Feed area. We also have a video coming out about the CFIT technology. Thank you again, Jan Lassen and Anders Levring for sharing your knowledge and insights with us. Thank you to everyone out there for listening. If you have an idea for a topic in cattle breeding or a question like Flemming and Dylan had, write us a note on Facebook. Visit We always love to hear from you with suggestions for topics or any questions you might have. My name is Louise Roenn Svane, and please join me for the next BreedCast episode, which will be on VikingRed and why this breed is becoming increasingly popular amongst dairy farmers around the world.