Using Milk Urea Nitrogen to Improve Nitrogen Efficiency and Reduce Environmental Impact of Dairy Cows

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The global human population is projected to increase from its current estimate of 7.1 billion to 9.4 billion by the year 2050. These projections are alarming because food production will have to double, and meeting such demand will be a challenge as arable land is limited. Meeting this demand will require increased efficiency of production in all facets of the food production system. Additionally, gains in productivity cannot come at the expense of environmental health, or the gains will not be sustainable. The use of management tools, such as milk urea nitrogen (MUN), can help improve the efficiency of milk production, reduce feed costs, and reduce environmental problems associated with dairy production.

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The Impact of Nitrogen Excretion on the Environment

Excess nitrogen fed to dairy cattle and other animals is excreted as urea in manure, much of which is converted into ammonia, and volatilized into the atmosphere. Ammonia emissions to the atmosphere are a concern as they can form particles less than 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5), which cause haze and contribute to lung and asthma problems in humans (WHO, 2005). Excess soil nitrogen can result in high levels of nitrate in drinking water or the leaching of nitrogen into surface water. Consumption of water with nitrates causes severe health problems in infants (methemoglobinemia), while nitrogen in surface water results in eutrophication and other serious environmental problems. Thus, the use of management practices that improve nitrogen efficiency of lactating dairy cattle may aid in the reduction of environmental and health risks.

Use of MUN to Achieve Optimum Return

High-producing dairy cows have an overall average nitrogen efficiency of 25%, which is less than half the post-absorptive efficiencies of precision-fed growing pigs. Higher efficiencies can be achieved in pigs because they are fed diets that perfectly match their amino acid requirements (precision feeding). Unfortunately, we do not currently possess the same level of knowledge of amino acid requirements in ruminants. However, because nitrogen efficiency is related to blood and MUN concentrations in dairy cattle, we can use MUN values as a management tool to monitor and improve nitrogen efficiency.

Milk urea is a product of nitrogen breakdown in the body and is highly correlated to dietary nitrogen and nitrogen balance of a cow. Dietary protein is the major determinant of MUN concentrations. If protein in the diet is deficient relative to the cow’s requirements, MUN concentrations will be low. Conversely, if protein in the diet is in excess of the cow’s requirements, MUN concentrations will be high. If this were the whole story, using MUN to indicate nitrogen efficiency  would be simple. Unfortunately, several additional factors influence MUN concentrations. These include time of milk sampling, season of the year, body weight, days in milk, breed, level of production, and other nutritional factors.

Starch is commonly suggested as one of the nutritional factors controlling MUN, and, indeed, it will alter MUN, but only if it impacts milk protein production. If we take a hypothetical cow being fed 50 lb/day of dry matter (DM) with 17% crude protein (CP) and a moderate level of dietary starch, nitrogen intake will be 1.36 lb/day. If she is producing 80 lb/day of milk at 3.0% protein, she is secreting 2.4 lb/day of milk protein or 0.38 lb/day of milk nitrogen. Much of the remaining 0.98 lb/day of nitrogen that was consumed but not converted to milk protein will be converted to urea and eventually excreted. If we increase the dietary starch content by the addition of finely ground starch so that it is ruminally available, it very likely will stimulate microbial growth in the rumen, which will use more of the waste nitrogen generated in the rumen, and thus less ammonia will be absorbed and converted to urea by the cow. However, the resulting extra microbial protein flows to the small intestine where it is mostly digested and absorbed as amino acids. If those amino acids are not used to make more milk protein, the cow will simply degrade them and convert the nitrogen to urea. So the defining event is an increase in milk protein production. In the absence of a milk protein production response, nothing has been gained, and the blood and MUN contents will be the same for both levels of dietary starch.

The target level for MUN across herds is generally 12 mg/dl. If MUN is greater than that, the herd is likely fed protein in excess of needs. If MUN is below 12 mg/dl, the herd may be experiencing a protein deficiency. However, there are differences among herds and among cows within a herd after all of the above factors have been considered, suggesting that the genetic makeup of the herd may play a role in determining herd and cow MUN levels. This is confirmed by the observation that MUN is genetically heritable. Thus, 2 hypothetical herds with the same breed and same-sized cows fed the same diet and with the same milk production, at the same stage of lactation, could have different MUN concentrations. Therefore, reducing MUN levels below 12 mg/dl without losing milk production may not be possible for all herds. Conversely, some herds may be able to achieve levels below 12 mg/dl and are wasting nitrogen at 12 mg/dl. To achieve maximum nitrogen efficiency and minimize ration costs, herds should establish their own specific targets for MUN.

Establishing a Herd-Specific MUN Target

Use the following strategy to establish a target MUN level for your herd. If you have a one-group TMR, the strategy is quite straightforward. If you feed multiple rations to lactating cows, it is a bit more tedious as the following process will have to be repeated for each group.

  1. Balance the diet to just meet (NRC, 2001) requirements for energy, rumen degradable protein (RDP), and microbial protein (MP). Feed the diet for 2 weeks and record the herd or group MUN value (1 bulk tank sample).
  2. As dietary rumen undegradable protein (RUP) is generally more expensive than RDP, start with RUP, although either way works. Reduce RUP content by 0.25% units while holding energy and RDP content constant. Feed the diet for 2 weeks and record the ending milk production, DM intake, and MUN concentration.
  3. Repeat step 2 until the cows decrease milk production or DM intake.
  4. The step immediately before the cows lose milk production or DM intake is the requirement for RUP for your herd.
  5. If there is a loss in production on the very first reduction in RUP, it is possible that the cows were already being fed a deficient diet. In this case, try adding 0.25% units RUP to the first ration to see if you get an increase in milk production.
  6. Once a herd-specific RUP level is determined, repeat the same process for RDP content using 0.5% unit reductions while holding energy constant and RUP at the threshold level established above until a loss in milk production or DM intake is experienced.
  7. The last RDP reduction step before a loss in milk production or DM intake was observed is your herd-specific RDP requirement.
  8. The final values for RDP, RUP, MP, and MUN are your herd’s target levels.

Feeding to meet but not exceed your herd-specific target RDP and RUP levels will result in the maximum achievable nitrogen efficiency under current feeding conditions and knowledge, and herd MUN values can be compared to target MUN concentrations to determine if the feeding program is staying on target. If MUN increases above the target, the cows are being fed more protein than needed, and nitrogen efficiency has declined. If MUN drops below the target, it is likely that a loss in milk production has occurred or will in the near future, and corrective measures should be taken. In either case, MUN does not provide information regarding the source of the problem. It simply indicates the animals are deficient in nitrogen or have an excess of nitrogen, and you will have to determine whether it is a problem with RDP, RUP, other dietary factors, feed formulation, or animal health. It is also important to recognize that all of the safety margin associated with overfeeding protein has been removed, and thus managing the feeding program to maintain consistency is critical to avoid a loss in production.

The target MUN value should be valid for several years unless you dramatically change your facilities or import different cattle. However, keep in mind that the diet required to obtain the target MUN value may change across several years. Eventually, it may drift due to genetic selection in your herd and should probably be reassessed in 5 years. Thus, you can monitor your herd’s MUN to keep a handle on your nitrogen feeding program and improve animal nitrogen efficiency while simultaneously reducing feeding costs and nitrogen excretion to the environment.

Author Information

Michelle Aguilar and Mark D. Hanigan
Department of Dairy Science
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA


NRC. 2001. Nutrient requirements of dairy cattle, 7th rev. ed. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

WHO. 2005. WHO air quality guidelines for particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide: Global update 2005, Summary of risk assessment, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.