Boosting dairy rations with high oleic soybeans

By Matt Reese

High oleic soybeans have been highlighted for their benefits in human food, but more evidence is being compiled about their benefits for dairy rations.

“High oleic soybeans are a biotechnological innovation that resulted in a higher portion of the oleic acid relative to linoleic acid. Most soybeans are high in linoleic acid. Bringing that oleic acid up better serves frying applications on the food side, but we’ve had this opportunity on the dairy side that also emerged,” said Keenan McRoberts, vice president of strategic alignment for the United Soybean Board. “It’s an opportunity to increase profits to get a little bit more fat in the dairy ration and to increase butterfat yield. By feeding whole high oleic soybeans, you can get more out of the ration without depressing milk fat.”

Traditional, roasted soybeans have been a common ingredient in dairy diets as an important source of fat and protein, but those commodity soybeans are also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are toxic to rumen microbes and can disrupt normal rumen function. This leads to the production of bioactive fatty acids that cause milk fat depression, which limits the benefits of traditional soy inclusion in dairy rations.

A 2020 study conducted by Kevin Harvatine at Penn State University, funded by the Pennsylvania Soybean Board, compared normal roasted soybeans to high oleic acid roasted soybeans fed at 5% and 10% of the dairy diet. Soybean type and level did not impact milk production, but high oleic soybeans resulted in 0.17 units higher milk fat concentration and 0.2 pounds higher milk fat yield. The increase was explained by a decrease in diet-induced milk fat depression. Increasing roasted soybeans from 5% to 10% of the cows’ diet increased milk fat 0.2 units. This translates into more profitability for dairies, McRoberts said.

“That’s a great opportunity on the dairy side to get more fat in that ration and increase profitability. Multiple studies, mostly at the university level, have indicated strong performance benefits based on milk fat yield and increase profit potential if you can get roasted high oleic soybeans into those rations,”  McRoberts said. “The economic analysis we’ve run based on five studies that were completed over the past several years has indicated that under all economic conditions between 2014 and 2020 — which is a period of considerable variation in milkfat price — that you would have increased profit if you were to feed those cows 5% roasted whole high oleic soybeans in that ration relative to what you would have been feeding otherwise. It’s significant. On a 2,000-cow dairy that could be a difference of $130,000 a year in profit given typical butterfat prices over that period.”

The current limited acreage of high oleic soybeans and the lost opportunity cost of the market premium they command do present some challenges. High oleic soybeans are now grown on over a million acres nationwide, with more expansion potential in the future, opening up more possibilities for inclusion in dairy rations. 

“This is still on the early end of adoption, but we’re seeing an increase in high oleic acres going toward dairy, especially in the upper Midwest and the Northeast. We’re anticipating approximately 300,000 acres going to dairy rations for the 2024 planning season, so it’s significant. That is getting close to a third of the overall high oleic soybean acreage footprint today,” he said.

Looking forward, McRoberts sees more supply chain benefits and increasing possibilities for future high oleic soybean inclusion in dairy rations.

“Feeding the whole soybeans enables a couple things. You can do more of a direct farm-to-market type application. They can be grown on the same dairy where you’re feeding the soybeans if you’re roasting on site, so the soybeans do not have to go through the typical processing entity. It is kind of a hyperlocal value chain. Even though there could be some increased cost, it’s an opportunity cost relative to what the other end-use for those beans might be, which would be to have it go to a processor and have that oil extracted for food use,” he said. “Further research will need to look at the opportunity cost with those acres and putting the production toward a dairy, but you could see it being produced on the same dairy or contracted with local farmers in the area. There are still some things to figure out, but we do know there’s an advantage from a digestibility standpoint of roasting the beans onsite versus feeding them raw. If you’ve got that infrastructure available and you can pull it off, there are profit advantages to getting those high oleic beans into dairy rations.”

For more recent research on this topic see “Economic Analysis of High-Oleic Soybeans in Dairy Rations” in the Journal of Dairy Science at:

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