A client walks up to Lynn Davis, inquiring, “The milk price is going down, isn’t there something we can cut out of the ration?”

Davis, a consulting nutritionist in east-central Wisconsin, just chuckles and responds, “Don’t you think I’ve been diligent all along? What I’ve been doing for you, Mr. Dairyman, all along is to make sure that you already have most cost-effective ration (regardless of the milk price).” Rather sheepishly, the producer agrees and the issue is settled — for now.

It’s human nature to be complacent during times of high milk prices, and a little more cautious — or even stingy — during times of low milk prices. But, with milk prices already on the decline, don’t let your emotions rule. Make sure that any changes you make in your ration are based on good business principles.

Resist temptation
Nine- to $10-dollar milk is a great teacher. It shows you what to do when times are lean. But cutting back on the ration — at the expense of milk production — isn’t one of them, points out Dick Rau, dairy producer at Dorchester, Wis. He looks for the “best-cost” ration that delivers the greatest income over feed cost — regardless of whether the milk price is $9 (per hundredweight) or $19.

Rau refuses to go with a “least-cost” ration. “I’m sure there are guys out there that are good with least-cost rations; I’m not one of them,” he says.

During lean times, some producers are tempted to cut back on commodity feeds and rely instead on their own indigenous forage base. But that strategy didn’t work for Jeremy Heim, co-owner of a 400-cow dairy in Algoma, Wis.  He once tried cutting back on soy hulls, but found that it resulted in a two- to three-pound drop in average milk production per day. Ditto for the western hay (alfalfa from Montana) that he had been using — milk production suffered when he tried cutting it out of the ration. So, both the soy hulls and the western hay were put back in.

Cheap feed ingredients are often lower in quality and nutritional value. Therefore, they must be fed in greater quantities, and that can negate any savings gained on the front end — not to mention the possible harm they can inflict on milk production, health and reproduction. (See “Does it pay to move a cow from a high-cost ration to a lower-cost ration?” on page 30.)

Income over feed cost
Experts and informed producers agree that you should look at income over feed cost rather than focusing on feed price alone.

“I think income over feed cost is one of the better measures of profitability,” agrees Vicky Carson, a dairy producer and nutrition consultant in Newbury, Vt. (She also teaches dairy nutrition at VermontTechnicalCollege.) “It is a quick-and-easy calculation that helps make management decisions fairly straight-forward.”

Mike Hutjens, extension dairy nutritionist at the University of Illinois, agrees with that assessment. After all, income over feed cost is what pays bills, he says.

But income over feed cost is dependent on the milk price, and the margin one gets by subtracting feed cost from milk income can vary considerably. It may drop $2 and have nothing to do with nutrition — the producer is still using the same TMR and the cows are still averaging 80 pounds a day — it simply has to do with a lower milk price, Hutjens says.

Regardless, one should look for the margin to widen with a ration change rather than seeing the margin narrow even further with a lower milk price.

Other considerations
Besides income over feed cost, Hutjens says he looks at three other parameters when assessing a ration change:

  • Feed cost per hundredweight of milk. A 25-cent savings in feed cost per 100 pounds of milk produced results in additional revenue of $50 per year per cow (with a 20,000-pound rolling herd average) if milk production stays the same. 
  • Cost per pound of dry matter. Targets can be misleading, because feed cost varies considerably from one part of the country to another.
  • Feed efficiency. Try to produce at least 1.5 pounds of milk for every 1 pound of dry matter consumed. 

“Each of these four numbers gives me a little different feel for the cost of my ration program,” Hutjens says.

Some of these numbers may go up, while others go down when making a ration change. For instance, you can save money in feed cost, but if it results in a loss of milk yield, you could see a reduction in income over feed cost.

“I think producers and feed sales people assume that if cows are making a lot of milk, they must be profitable,” Carson says. But they also need to look at how the cows achieve that higher milk yield and at what cost, she adds.

And, don’t forget the impact of a nutritional change on milk components. A 0.1-percentage-point increase in milk protein results in $48 more per year from a cow that produces 20,000 pounds a year (assuming a protein value of $2.40 per pound). A 0.2-percentage-point increase in butterfat results in $59 more per year from a cow that produces 20,000 pounds a year (assuming a butterfat value of $1.47 per pound).

Look at the big picture
Nutrition is complicated and somewhat farm-specific, so it is difficult to make sweeping suggestions on a given feed ingredient. Often, the response one gets from a feed ingredient is facility- or management-related rather than purely nutritional. If forages aren’t harvested at the right time, they lose digestibility and that can have a negative impact on feed efficiency.

Look for bottlenecks around the farm, advises Davis, the consulting nutritionist from Wisconsin. Determine the limiting factor that’s not allowing the herd to move forward, he says.

If someone starts out feeding soy hulls, and then cuts back only to find there is a reduction in milk production, it could have to do with the digestibility of the other feeds — specifically the forages — in the ration, Davis says. Soy hulls have highly digestible fiber. But forages can be a good source of highly digestible fiber as well.   

Hopefully, you have a good nutritionist who can help you sort through the variables. And, someone who looks at the ration from a business perspective, using proven business principles like income over feed cost. That will help you resist the temptation to make wholesale changes — and perhaps cheapen the ration — when milk prices go down.

“Do we make lots of changes when we have milk prices sliding? Davis asks rhetorically. The answer, of course, is “no.”


Making the right feeding decisions is often dependent on having a nutritionist who follows current research and is willing to look at things from a business perspective.

Approach each additive from a business perspective

Dick Rau has always worked hard to keep his pregnancy rate at a high level — 20 percent or higher — so it was troubling when the preg rate dropped to 16 percent. (He says cows that were entering their second lactation weren’t putting on enough condition, so by the time they were ready to enter their next reproductive cycle they didn’t have a high enough energy balance.) 

The central Wisconsin producer asked his nutritionist for help.

Together, they researched feed additives that could boost energy balance and help the cows’ reproductive performance.  They contacted the representative of a rumen-bypass-fat product and asked to see research. They also found it important to learn how the product works, or its mode of action.

By learning how the product works, you can establish a timeline for results, Rau says. That helps take the emotion out of a feeding change, he adds.    

After incorporating bypass fat, Rau did see a nice step-up in pregnancy rate. As of early February, his 1,200-cow herd was running a 19-percent pregnancy rate, and he was hopeful that it would continue to rise into the low- to mid-20s.

  • Each percentage-point improvement in pregnancy rate is worth $15 to $20 per cow per year.

Use the 5 Rs

Here are five things to look for when assessing the value of a feed additive:

  • Return on investment.
  • Response in performance of animals.
  • Repeatability of performance response.
  • Research to support and prove the claims.
  • Reassurance in compliance and safety of products.

  “If I am contacted by a representative of a feed additive, the first question I ask is “Do you have peer-reviewed research to show the efficacy of your product?” points out Lynn Davis, consulting nutritionist and part-owner of a 3,000-cow dairy in east-central Wisconsin.

Mike Socha, research nutritionist at the Zinpro Corporation (which promotes the 5-Rs concept), says some of the best sources of independent, peer-reviewed research include the Journal of Dairy Science, Journal of Animal Science, American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists, Animal Feed Science Technology, and Journal of Nutrition.

Make sure the research offers an apples-to-apples comparison, Socha says. For instance, there are zinc-proteinate products and there are zinc-methionine products. Often the source of the products is listed under the “materials and methods” section of the research paper.