Money in 2020 milk check is in the protein

Matt Lippert
It is difficult to predict the future but as of today it is very profitable to pay attention specifically to pounds and percent of protein produced.

In July the Class III price of milk reached the lofty level of $24.54.cwt. just six cents below the all-time high from September 2014. The way the price was derived from the two main value components of the milk, butterfat and protein, was very different.

In 2014 fat and protein had similar values – $3.25 and $3.50 per pound, respectively. In July 2020, the protein value shot to an all-time high of $5.63 per pound while butterfat languished at a modest $1.96 per pound.

This is a reversal of a five-year trend since 2014 where butterfat has contributed more to the milk price than protein. As recently as December 2018 butterfat had over twice the value of protein- $2.51/lb. vs. $1.14/lb.

Dairy producers have responded to the four years higher value of fat. It is difficult to make changes monthly. Wisconsin average butterfat went from 3.76% in 2016 to 3.89% in 2018.  Over many years these values have barely moved hundredths, to move a full tenth in two years for the entire state is a major change.

Class III is often called the cheese price of milk. There is a 78% correlation between the Class III price and the protein price over the past twenty years. There is only a 53% correlation between Class III and butterfat price. Butterfat price is more closely linked to the Class IV, or butter-powder price. 

It also seems that it is rare for both the butterfat and protein price to be high at the same time, in fact the correlation between butterfat and protein prices since 2000 is -6%, basically the price of fat is not a factor, possibly a negative one, in predicting the protein price.

Genetics is the largest variable in both fat and protein percentage in milk. We see this in the difference between breeds of cattle. Some of the increase in butterfat recently observed probably is a slight increase in the amount of Jersey genetics in Wisconsin’s collective herd. 

There is a wide variability within breeds as well and producers have responded to high butterfat prices by selecting for high test bulls as mating sires. While genetics is the largest factor, environmental factors such as season of the year and diet composition are also major factors contributed about half of the variability seen. 

Now that the value is in the protein, we realize that protein test is less variable and more difficult to change.  Whereas individual cows might range from 2.0-7.0% butterfat 2.8-3.5% covers the greatest majority of the range we see in cow’s protein test. The best way to ship more pounds of protein is to ship more pounds of milk.

But what can be done to improve protein test beyond genetics? Commercial protected amino acids, usually methionine and lysine are expensive but are available to be supplemented. There are differences between commodity protein supplements in their amino acid profiles, balancing rations to achieve the right ratio of amino acids can help protein test. 

Rumen bacteria produce amino acids, the building blocks of protein and are the best and most economical way to improve total protein pounds and protein test. Cows fed diets of highly digestible carbohydrates in a balanced ration conducive to high intake will produce the most milk and milk protein.

Protein supplementation must be adequate, however feeding more protein is not a guarantee to provide higher protein production. Rumen microbes can make protein from carbohydrates such as starch from corn and highly digestible fiber from forages. Milk Urea Nitrogen (MUN) is one tool to monitor if there is a good combination of the level of protein and carbohydrate and if factors such as particle size and rate of degradation are well matched between carbohydrate and protein in the rumen.

Along with MUN, actual production and components of fat and protein are good diagnostics of how vigorous the rumen environment of the cow is. If you have low protein test and/or production, there probably are things that can be tweaked with the diet to improve the situation.

Tweaking the diet

Adjusting fat percent is more easily accomplished but not without its challenges. Feeding diets that have adequate total and effective fiber, avoiding fat and vegetable oil feeding and large slugs in one meal of finely ground feed are the main hallmarks of diets for herds with above average butterfat test. 

Favorable butterfat test is also associated with healthy cows with little ruminal acidosis.  The goal is to have high milk and high butterfat test, and this is a fine line.  In general, high butterfat test can be a sign of lost milk production. 

Since producers get paid on pounds of butterfat and protein produced it is not a good outcome to have lots of milk with low component test or excellent components but not enough milk. Feeding certain fatty acids in the correct ratio may improve production and fat test. Fatty acid supplementation is expensive and cannot makeup for other problems limiting butterfat test in the diet.

The fat supplements are not active in the rumen, utilizing various technologies. Fat that is active in the rumen generally inhibits rumen microbial populations and has  a negative effect on fat test.

There is a milk test, the De novo fatty acid test, that can give you an idea of how much of the butterfat in the  milk was synthesized by the cow verses how much she simply passed through to the milk from the diet. Some cooperatives offer this test. It is a sign of a healthy rumen for a higher level of fatty acids created by the cow and a favorable ratio is often found in herds with high fat test.

Dairy producers want it all, high milk, healthy cows and good component test. Today there are herds that are accomplishing well above average levels on all fronts. It is difficult to predict the future but as of today it is very profitable to pay attention specifically to pounds and percent of protein produced.

Matt Lippert

Matt Lippert is the Clark and Wood County Dairy and Livestock Agent

UW Extension