When it comes to achieving peak performance in our dairy herds – be that in milk yield, milk fat content or body condition score and fertility – fat supplements play a vital role.

Applying new research findings, such as the latest studies on the impact of individual fatty acids on cow performance, demonstrates there is a lot to be gained by no longer viewing fat simply as a concentrated source of energy. 

“By understanding the fatty acids that make up fat supplements and how they affect responses and partitioning of nutrients, dairy producers can target and improve specific areas of dairy herd performance,” explains Dr Richard Kirkland, Global Technical Manager here at Volac Wilmar Feed Ingredients. 

This blog discusses seven of Dr Kirkland’s suggestions that dairy producers should consider when contemplating the purchase of a fat supplement.

1. Think about fatty acids rather than fat.

Ruminant diets consist of five major fatty acids, each utilised differently within the body of the cow.  Recent research on the subject has centred on two of these fatty acids – C16:0 (palmitic) and C18:1 (oleic) – and their impact on cow performance during specific stages of the lactation cycle.

These studies have shown C18:1 to improve the digestibility of total diet fat, which increases energy supply. It also increases the hormone Insulin, which aids partitioning of nutrients to improve body condition – making it particularly beneficial when offered in early lactation. This fatty acid has also been proven to boost fertility by promoting egg and embryo development. 

In contrast, C16:0 has been found to increase the partitioning of nutrients to milk,  particularly milk fat production. With this in mind, C16:0 may be more beneficial in mid to late lactation when a cow is no longer losing body condition. Conversely, it indicates that care should be taken with supplementation during the fresh period. 

2. Fat supplementation is beneficial in early lactation. 

Keep in mind the context when considering the impact of specific fatty acids on cow performance at different lactation stages – this is fundamental in understanding the benefits of early supplementation.

Researchers at Michigan State University, USA, reported that fresh cows provided with Mega-Max, a rumen-protected fat supplement containing a 60:30 ratio of C16:0 to C18:1 for the first 24 days of lactation, produced milk with 0.33% higher fat compared to a control group (receiving no fat supplement), without having a negative impact on body condition. 

“This study demonstrated that where the most appropriate supplement based on the ratio of fatty acids is offered, milk production can be improved without detriment to body condition,” says Dr Kirkland. 

3. Early fat supplementation benefits later lactation. 

Research into the impact of fat supplementation in early lactation has demonstrated a strong impact on overall lactation performance.  

In the Michigan State study, cows supplemented with fat from calving through to day 67 of lactation produced an additional 5.1 litres of milk per day, with +0.2% higher milk fat. However, in the group where fat supplementation stopped at day 24, cows continued to produce more milk - an additional 2.2 litres/day, until the end of the study at day 67. These results indicate a strong carryover effect from supplementation in the very early stages of lactation.  

“While more research is needed in this area, these findings tell us that what we do in early lactation can have a carryover effect with a pronounced impact on lactation performance. So, when we think about the cost of supplementation, we need to consider that the investment made in fresh cow nutrition may continue to be paid off later in lactation,” explains Dr Kirkland. 

4. Fatty acids must be rumen-protected. 

When it comes to rumen protection, you might also consider fat protection. To see the benefit of individual fatty acids, it’s essential to use rumen-protected fats to ensure they are delivered to the small intestine for absorption and avoid interference with fibre digestion in the rumen. If unprotected, fat will kill many of the fibre-digesting rumen bacterial species and reduce fibre digestion. 

“Rumen-protection is critical to avoid reductions in rumen fibre digestibility and to ensure delivery of unsaturated fatty acids, such as C18:1, through the rumen to the small intestine for absorption,” says Dr Richard Kirkland. “We are protecting the rumen from the fat, avoiding reductions in fibre digestibility, while also protecting the fat from the rumen to avoid biohydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids to ensure they pass to the small intestine for functional benefit.”

5. The granule size of fat supplements matters. 

As the industry-standard method of delivering C18:1 and C16:0 fatty acids to dairy cows, it’s important to consider the physical nature of calcium salt-type fat supplements and the impact on the degree of rumen-protection of these products.

Research by Volac Wilmar Feed Ingredients at the National University of Singapore has reported a significantly higher breakdown of calcium salts of ‘fine’ granules (<0.5 mm diameter) compared to that of larger granules (3-4 mm diameter) across a range of different acid conditions to reflect typical rumen pH values.

“While granule size is undeniably going to have an impact on the return on investment through fat supplementation, it is important to note that particle size varies greatly according to the manufacturing process,” explains Dr Kirkland. “The Megalac calcium salt brand, manufactured to have a higher proportion of larger granules, is an effective way to optimise cow performance by improving key fatty acid supply.”

6. Decisions should be driven by your objectives. 

While fat continues to provide an essential energy supply to dairy cows, how producers utilise it to manipulate performance on a farm level should be determined by individual milk contracts and business objectives. 

“Fat has the highest energy density of any ingredient — more than 2.5 times the energy concentration of cereal sources. Replacing carbohydrate sources of energy with fat also reduces the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” says Dr Kirkland. 

A worthy consideration with the increasing emphasis on our environmental responsibilities.

7. Palm oil is an important source of C16:0 and C18:1 fatty acids – selecting sustainable palm is important 

In general, different vegetable oils are rich in one particular fatty acid, with palm oil being the only prime source for palmitic acid, though also containing significant levels of C18:1 fatty acid. This makes it a valuable resource in animal feed production.

However, ensuring palm oil has been grown and sourced ethically and sustainably is vital.

Policies assuring no deforestation, no development on peat, and no exploitation of people and local communities should be fundamental (the often referred NDPE policies). Certification of material by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) helps drive sustainability in the palm oil chain, enabling the supply of palm accredited to standards including Mass Balance and Segregated.

More than 40% of the world’s vegetable oil production comes from palm, despite only accounting for 7.5% of land devoted to vegetable oil crops and a large proportion of this is grown by smallholders where the crop is essential in providing access to basic requirements including food, electricity, education and healthcare. 

“RSPO works directly with growers to improve production practices – while certifying that sustainability standards are met throughout the supply chain. Since palm oil derivatives are a base for most of our feed fat products, these sustainability policies are essential to Volac Wilmar so we can continue to supply farmers with the tools to drive efficiency on their farms without jeopardising the environment,” says Dr Kirkland. 

Fat supplementation in summary

It’s clear that when the impact of specific fatty acids at different lactation stages is understood, fat supplementation can be used to optimise herd performance while also serving as an essential, dense energy source.

At Volac Wilmar Feed Ingredients, exploring the complexities and benefits of every component of dairy nutrition is at the heart of everything we do. Keep checking back in on our blog for future developments, insight, and knowledge from various VWFI team members.

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