When fire destroyed his farm in 1992, Kevin Solum had the daunting task of starting all over again. He made it - eventually - but there were some bumps in the road.

Some of those bumps were quite literal in nature. With regard to the whole cottonseed he was using, Solum had to store it initially in a pole barn that was located about 500 to 600 feet from the feed mixing area. A payloader carried loads of cottonseed down a dirt lane, but the lane was a bit rutted, which made the operator's teeth rattle and also jarred some of the cottonseed out of the bucket.

"We had a cottonseed-coated driveway, especially if we were in a hurry that day," says the Deer Park, Wis., producer.

Fortunately, Solum was able to solve the problem by moving the cottonseed into a commodity shed near the other feed ingredients. But, his story helps illustrate the subtle - and not so subtle - nature of feed loss or "shrink." It's a problem that may be costing you big bucks.

Big losses
You don't have to tell that to Jon Kroenke, dairy producer near Shawano, Wis. Like Solum, he got his problem solved, but not before experiencing some real aggravation.

Kroenke had been storing his haylage and corn silage on the ground in piles, covered with plastic. Unfortunately, he did not have the time to manage the piles as intensively as he would have liked, and much of the feed spoiled. By his own estimates, he lost upward of 40 percent of the haylage to mold or poor fermentation. Imagine what it was like having to dump the spoiled feed back in the fields - what a waste.

"We just had a terrible time trying to manage haylage in piles," he adds.

Then, about two years ago, Kroenke - in consultation with his business consultant and nutritionist - decided to store the feed in silage bags. The quality of feed improved tremendously, and so did milk production. Before switching to bags, Kroenke couldn't raise his rolling herd average above 21,000. Now, his 250-cow herd is at 24,000 pounds and climbing.

"I am very happy with the quality of feed that comes out of the bags," he says.

Nutritional consultant Keith Sather, of Dresser, Wis., isn't surprised that Kroenke would experience losses approaching 40 percent. Several years ago, when many of his clients decided to expand their operations, Sather noticed that some were piling their feed on the ground - either on concrete slabs or dirt - and not packing or covering the piles properly. He began to realize they would need 35 percent more feed than they actually had on hand because of shrink loss. Today, those clients have learned to manage the piles more efficiently, but shrink loss can still amount to 15 percent to 20 percent,
Sather says.

Even at 15 percent, the economic losses add up. Let's say you feed 25 pounds of haylage per day to each of the cows on a 600-cow dairy. Over the course of a year, that would be 5.475 million pounds, or 2,737.5 tons. If you are normally running a 15 percent shrink, you would actually need 3,148 tons (or 2,737.5 x 1.15) to get the job done. If haylage is valued at $40 per ton, that's $16,420 worth of additional feed. That may require an additional 70 acres. And, think of the time and equipment cost that goes into plant-ing and harvesting those 70 acres.

An insidious problem
Feed shrink can occur in many subtle ways - from wind blowing loose feed, to rodents eating the feed, to errors in feed mixing.

Solum, who runs a 650-cow dairy, told his employees not to run tractors or payloaders over the cottonseed stored in commodity barns because cottonseed can get caught in the tire treads.

Each time the feed is handled mechanically, loss can occur. Feed shrink occurs when feed is harvested, stored, handled, mixed, processed, delivered and discarded, says Jim Barmore, nutritional consultant with Monsanto Dairy Business. Often times, it's not readily visible.

You are never going to eliminate feed shrink completely. The focus should be on controlling it rather than eliminating it, Barmore adds. (For specific ideas on minimizing feed shrink, please see the article, "Stop feed losses," in the September 1999 issue of Dairy Herd Management.)

Some feeds are more prone to shrink than others. A lightweight feed, like linseed meal, may get blown by the wind. And, feeds stored in silos are subject to fermentation losses. For example, Sather estimates that haylage losses can run from 10 percent to 35 percent, depending on the type of storage and level of management.

Although feed shrink is one of those insidious, almost invisible, problems on your dairy, there are ways to measure it. Conceptually, it is as easy as measuring what goes into storage and how much actually gets eaten by the cows.

To measure feed shrink, you have to have a starting point and an ending point, according to Sather, who has developed a computer software program known as Feed Supervisor to help measure feed disappearance. For example, when measuring shrink in a bunker silo, the starting point will involve the specific weight of feed delivered to the bunker, and the end point can be when the bunker is completely empty. Did the delivered feed last 46 days, as you projected it would based on the size of your herd, or did it only last 38 days?

In the May issue of Dairy Herd Management, we will discuss computer software programs that are designed to help you measure feed disappearance.

Once you measure the shrink on your dairy, you may be surprised at just how big the problem really is.

Sources of feed shrink

  • Wind.
  • Birds.
  • Rodents.
  • Tires and tracking.
  • Bunker run-off.
  • Tossed feed.
  • Feed refusals.
  • Poor bunk design.
  • Hot feed.
  • Spoilage.
  • Moisture loss.
  • Mixing error.
  • Scale inaccuracy.

Source: Jim Barmore, Monsanto Dairy Business