The Pros and Cons of Added Fat in Dairy

US - Fats, or lipids, are part of all dairy cattle diets and are an essential component of them. All dairy animals consume forages, which are typically 3 to 3.5 percent fat or higher, depending whether we’re talking alfalfa, grass or corn silage.
calendar icon 10 June 2008
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Additionally, corn grain is about 3.5 percent fat as well. Lactating cow diets with additional feeds such as cottonseed or corn distillers would have a basal diet level of over 4 percent fat. As milk production has increased, the need for greater energy density in lactating cow diets has necessitated the feeding of more fat. High producing cow diets may now include tallow and rumen inert fats in addition to oilseeds. This results in diets of 5.5 to 6 percent fat.

Feeding fat has advantages and disadvantages for the dairy animal.

Advantages: Feeding fat increases the energy density of the ration. As cows milk more, they need more energy and there is a limit on how much starch can be fed. Fat also contains approximately 2.25 times as much energy as starch. Feeding fat can alleviate some of the shortcoming of poor forage and its limitations on feed intake as well.

In recent years, there has been tremendous interest in the value of feeding particular fatty acids for reproduction. Certain omega-3 fatty acids are required by the animal for the production of specific hormones. Including these in diets has shown to improve the pregnancy rate in cows.

Disadvantages: Forage quality, the amount of forage fed, and feeding grains are main factors in keeping feed costs down because they are less expensive than fat sources. Additionally, fats in commodity byproducts are calculated on the basis of partial contribution and, thus, supplementing tallow or rumen inert fats are higher priced ingredients.

Feeding over 5 percent of the diet as fat can have negative effects on dry matter intake and milk production. There is a point where additional fat fed does not result in increased intake or milk production; this point is variable with different feed ingredients.

The bottom line: Adding fat to diets of dairy animals can be beneficial to improve the energy balance in lactating cows. This should improve milk production and reproduction. However, feeding fat must be carefully monitored for negative effects on feed intake, milk production and milk components.

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