Feeding programs that minimize their costs while meeting the dairy cow's nutritional needs are basic to attaining the cow's genetic potential to produce milk.
Furthermore, those diets must optimize the health and reproductive performance of cows.
In addition, these rations are formulated for the environment (to meet the nitrogen and phosphorus needs of the cow) without feeding them excess amounts.
These days, achieving these goals, which do not result in immediate financial rewards, is a tall task.
As dairy managers evaluate the costs of the diets during times of escalating feed costs, they need to base those decisions on income over feed costs, not feed costs alone. Spending a little more in feed cost may improve profit if the cows produce more milk, rebreed more quickly and remain healthy.
Despite despairingly low milk prices during the last couple of years, the industry's response is evident on one key point: Never give up milk.
Today, even though milk prices are on the rise, so are feed inputs, with corn leading the way. So with guarded optimism, the industry forges ahead in an arduous effort to remain sustainable. Since feed represents 50 to 60 percent of the cost of producing milk, here are some ways to reduce feed costs and maximize returns:
* Consider purchasing ingredients in larger lots cooperatively with your neighbors; that can cash flow the purchase. Your neighbor does not need to be a dairy farmer. Other livestock or crop enterprises also utilize feed commodities or other products that can be purchased in larger amounts for a discount.
* Shop around for the best price, but be sure you are comparing prices for equivalent ingredients and quality of ingredients. For example, some byproducts may have been overheated to render the protein unavailable to the cow, or wet grains might contain mycotoxins. Be careful, and always account for the moisture content, especially for various byproducts. This can make a big difference, especially with transportation costs at $4 per ton per loaded mile and fuel prices on the rise as well.
* Look for bargains and contract for a certain amount of an ingredient or complete feed at a set price for a set time frame from a supplier.
* If you are purchasing ingredients as needed, you can evaluate their nutritive value by using the Feed Val spreadsheet from the University of Wisconsin at http://www.uwex.edu/ces/dairynutrition/spreadsheets.cfm. It does not set the price; rather, it provides a "relative" price to help you and your nutritionist evaluate changing ingredients of your cows' diet.
* Try to prevent feed from blowing away on windy days or being scattered about the feed yard when it's loaded into and unloaded from the total mixed ration (TMR) wagon or grinder mixer.
* Mix and feed a consistent mixture. Cows are creatures of habit, and their rumen bacteria perform better when they receive a consistent feeding of nutrients. Thus, when feeding a TMR, the dry-matter content of forages and wet byproducts should be checked weekly. Small changes can alter the nutrients supplied and impact the health of cows. For example, not adjusting the amount of silages or wet byproduct for changing dry-matter or moisture content means these cows could become acidotic and go off feed, resulting in a drop in milk production.
* Be sure to properly blend and uniformly deliver the ration. Cows should be fed the amounts of dry matter listed on the balanced ration. If the cows are not eating the ration provided or forages have changed, you need to reformulate the diet.
* Balance rations for your heifers and dry cows and feed them the appropriate amount of grain in that grain mix. Gone are the days when heifers are just fed 4 to 5 pounds of grain.
* As winter turns to spring, feeds, especially wet feeds, may become more prone to spoilage. Make sure bunker silos remain covered and silo bags are not full of holes from rodents and birds and damage from wildlife. Keeping wildlife from damaging silo bags is a significant challenge this winter because excessive snow is driving hungry wildlife into rural feed yards after sunset. The wildlife not only steal precious feed, but they leave commodities such as corn silage and haylage exposed to the air, which allows silages to deteriorate rapidly.
* Purchase high-quality forages, such as alfalfa hay, based on a forage analysis, not simply appearance.
* Assess your forage program now to plan for needs, and allocate the best forage to the early lactation cows that pay the bills.
Better economic times will be ahead, but in the short run, careful decisions now will make the high cost of feed less painful.
Source: J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist, NDSU Extension Service