How to cope with protein products shortfall predicted for coming months

Advice for dairy farmers
How to cope with protein products shortfall predicted for coming months

Alternative protein sources if you can't get soya include rapeseed,  brewers and  distillers grains, 

Farmers are finding themselves in a precarious position of not being able to do as they have always done, and call up their local merchant to order a protein source to balance the diets for their stock.

In many cases, farms can still get high protein blends but at an increased cost.

I have had many calls since Christmas from my customers enquiring as to how they should replace soya in their diets, if they cannot source it.

We need to look at what the farm is trying to achieve, and understand their setup when looking at alternative protein sources.

Tightening soya supplies

The issue arose before Christmas, as there were issues in Argentina which prevented soybean meal being exported.

Although an agreement has been reached in recent weeks, it has been predicted that we will have a shortfall in protein products for the coming months.

As with supply and demand, if soya bean is not available or restricted, the pressure will be put on other protein products, and prices will increase.

Meeting your animals’ protein requirements

All your animals will require a certain level of protein in the diet.

The cows will eat protein, which is converted to ammonia, and the rumen microbes then use this ammonia to digest fibre, which therefore produces energy.

For young animals, it is used to grow the animal and build lean tissue, and if not fed adequately, it can result in poor performance of your stock over the winter period.

For milking cows, the stage of lactation and milk production will determine the protein requirement of the diet.

A cow in early lactation will have a higher milk yield and lower dry matter intake, compared to a cow in mid-late lactation, and therefore will require a higher level of protein in the diet.

In early lactation, the cows struggle to eat enough, and cannot take in enough energy to match the milk being produced, leading to a negative energy balance.

The protein of your diet will set the milk yield potential in early lactation.

Achieving an extra litre or two is only good if you can supply enough energy to the cow.

What we do not want happening is for cows to drop more than 0.5 of a body condition score in the first 60 days post-calving, thus leading to lower conception rates.

Knowing the quality of your silages is vital when setting out a diet, as it gives you a foundation to start on.

How you manage your cows over the dry period and transition them onto a milking cow diet will also have a significant impact on performance in early lactation.

Alternative protein sources

Rapeseed and distillers are making up a lot of rations, as soya is being stretched out.

They are however lower in protein than soya, and you will need to feed more ration to the cows to get the same level of protein into them, if rapeseed and distillers are used as a straight swap.

Wet products like brewers, distillers grains can also be used as a protein source, if you can get your hands on them.

There are several other products, like corn gluten, palm kernel, peas and beans, however their availability is yet to be seen.

Optigen is a product I am using which has a slow controlled-release of nitrogen.

It is working well on farms and proving cost-effective in diets. with a similar rate of degradation to soya, safer to feed (compared to urea), and a higher level of soluble protein and a better balance of PDI (meaning it can better match the protein requirement of the cow and thus reduce the overall protein in the diet for the animal).

Better utilisation will also mean better feed efficiency, thus less waste and losses for the environment.

The emphasis for the coming year should be to become more sustainable in terms of protein.

Peas and beans can be grown locally, and clover in your silage ground will help increase the protein in your silage.

Some of the alkaline treatments of locally grown grain will also pick up the protein, by adding feed grade urea and converting it to ammonia, it will typically pick up barley/wheat/oats by 4.5% crude protein, depending on the product you use and level of feed grade urea used.


Farms can also manage what feed they currently have and decide whether they can take out or reduce some low protein sources in the diet.

Maize silage and fodder beet are 6-8% protein, and will require a higher level of protein to balance compared to grass silage.

Both work well in spring calving diets, but can also be pitted and used for buffering in the summer months when extra protein is coming through in the grass.

Grass itself cannot be underestimated, and even getting 2-3Kg of dry matter into the cows at this stage of the year replaces a 12% forage source with an 18-20% forage source, and alleviates the pressure on protein.

The weather and ground type will determine when you can get the cows out to grass for a few hours.

Once the quantity of grass in the diet increases, and you can ensure the cows are getting enough dry matter intake, the need for high protein rations will drop, and so will the cost of the diet.

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