In the popular “Indiana Jones” film series, Harrison Ford is on a quest to find a treasure. Each perilous journey threatens to derail his goal of finding the coveted item he seeks.

You are on a treasure hunt of sorts, too, in your quest to find a “best-cost” ration in times of high feed cost. Smart purchasing decisions evade you. Cheap feed ingredients tantalize you. Obstacles emerge that can scar milk production. 

Don’t be led away from the treasure. Follow these clues to find your “best-cost” ration.

Seek energy substitutes

Current feed economics call for you to look beyond what you’ve always believed to be the optimum level of starch in the diet.     

“The recommended 25 to 30 percent range for dietary starch may have resulted in good working rations in the past, but the economic penalty… can now be excessive,” says Normand St-Pierre, dairy scientist at OhioStateUniversity.

The same goes for non-fiber carbohydrate levels. Diets within a narrow range of 35 percent to 40 percent NFC may not be economically optimal today, St-Pierre says.

Don’t limit yourself to a narrow window when it comes to carbohydrate levels. Seek substitutes that do not change the energy level available to the rumen microbes. The non-fiber carbohydrates and digestible fiber supplied by many by-product feeds are good alternative energy sources. Make a list of those available to you.

Purchase on nutritional value

Next, find out which of the feed substitutes available to you is the best nutritional value for the price.

A good way to do this is to compare feed ingredients on a cost per unit of “essential” nutrients — basically, energy, degradable protein, undegradable protein, effective fiber and non-effective fiber. SESAME, a computer-software program from OhioStateUniversity, uses current market prices and nutrient composition of all commodities to assess whether a specific commodity is a bargain or not, based on its nutrient profile.

To use the program, you input all the feeds available to you — not just those that you currently purchase — and the cost of each of those feeds. You can modify the nutrient composition assumed by the program for each feed. The program then tells you what each feed is worth based on the nutrients it contains. It does so by giving you an “actual” price and a “breakeven,” or optimal price. For example, in the table at left, canola meal is selling for $295 per ton. This would be considered “over-priced” compared to the breakeven price of $240 per ton (with a breakeven range of $219 to $261).

Periodically question the need of every feed ingredient in your rations as prices change, St-Pierre stresses. Ask yourself “Am I buying the right feeds? Am I growing the right forages?”

Careful replacement of one feed ingredient with another does not have to impact milk production. Choose your path to a “best-cost” ration wisely. 


The latest version of SESAME is available at:

You can try the software for free for seven days, after which the cost to register the program is $99.95.

Dietary energy in “unchartered territory”

It’s no surprise. the cost of dietary energy is way up.

According to a computer-software program from Ohio State University, the cost per Mcal of NEL in Ohio increased from $0.087 to $0.148 between 2004 and the summer of 2007 — a 70-percent increase.

In comparison, the unit cost of NEL during the 15-year period between 1982 and 1997 averaged 5 to 7 cents per Mcal, “and never even exceeded 10 cents per Mcal during this same 15-year period,” says Normand St-Pierre, dairy scientist at Ohio State University. “Thus, the current price for dietary energy resides in a completely unchartered territory.”