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Supplements vs. additives: Making sense of the feed ingredient frenzy

Elliot Block Published on 27 October 2010

Nutritionists are constantly faced with the challenge of delivering high-quality feed ingredients to the ration, walking a tightrope between nutritional needs and wants.

One of the most challenging decisions is selecting the ingredients that will deliver the proper nutrients for peak performance.



Today there are hundreds of feed ingredients available to help dairy cows reach maximum potential. Many claim the same results – greater dry matter intake, higher milk and component production levels, improved health and immune function, increased pregnancy rates – but not all may actually deliver the nutrients needed to meet the dairy cow’s requirements.

Rather than focusing on benefits alone, understanding what the ingredient provides to meet nutrition requirements can help you design the best diet for your herd.

Defining feed ingredients
To better understand the value of each feed ingredient, it’s important to introduce and define the words “supplement” and “additive.”

  • Supplement: Meets a defined nutritional requirement that optimizes performance. These ingredients help to deliver nutrients at levels specified in the National Research Council (NRC) recommendations. One example is rumen bypass fat. When supplied in the diet, bypass fats deliver the energy cows need to meet NRC requirements.

  • Additive: Alters digestive function. These can help improve performance, but do not meet a nutritional requirement. One example of an additive is a rumen buffer. While we know rumen buffers can help raise rumen pH and maintain rumen health, there is no set nutrient requirement for the ingredient.

  • Conditional additive: There are always exceptions to the rule. This class of feed ingredients supplies known nutrients without an established requirement. They may become a supplement based on research findings that imply their requirement but are not currently included in the NRC guidelines.

Common field ingredients
An example of a conditional additive is essential fatty acids (EFAs). While research confirms EFAs provide a critical nutrient cows need for reproductive performance, NRC does not have a set nutritional guideline. Over time, nutrient requirements may be established for feeding a conditional additive.

From definitions to decisions
With our working definition of a supplement, we can translate this information into ration decision-making. In this section we will focus primarily on supplements as they deliver required nutrients to the diet, especially when other forages and feeds may not provide recommended levels. Here are some tips on successfully implementing supplements into the diet:


  • Look at the research. With many supplements meeting nutritional requirements, it’s hard to differentiate which ones will deliver high-quality, consistent nutrients to the diet.

    One way to identify leading products is to look at the product research. Published studies and on-farm trials can shed light on which product may be most effective in the ration. Make sure the research cited was completed using the product, rather than citing research on a competitive product in the same category.

  • Count of your feedstuffs. While forages provide a cost-effective nutrient source, supplements can be fed alongside these ingredients to deliver consistent, quality nutrition. Use supplements to meet the needs forages cannot.

  • Work with your herd nutritionist. Herd nutritionists have extensive experience balancing diets with supplements and first-hand knowledge of which ones provide the best nutrients for peak performance. Rely on their expertise to guide your decision-making as you select supplements for your rations.

The return on ingredients
One challenge to measuring the effectiveness of supplements is that in some cases, an immediate income over feed cost (IOFC) cannot be identified. Remember that supplements are meeting a required nutrient need, which means they may not be intended to increase productivity and IOFC in the short term.

But healthy, productive cows are the long-term goal. Feeding a well-balanced ration can lead to greater returns in the long term, in areas such as immune function, reproduction, growth and maintained body condition. The success of your dairy depends on healthy cows able to produce high levels of quality milk and get bred back in a timely fashion.

Look at your ration today and identify the ingredients that help you meet your herd’s nutritional requirements and production potential. Use these ingredients to meet nutrient requirements and ensure your herd reaches peak potential year ’round.  PD

PHOTO: Use supplements to meet the needs forages cannot. Photo by PD staff.

Elliot Block
  • Elliot Block
  • Senior Manager of Technology
  • Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition