Editor’s note: Greg Bethard, of G&R Dairy Consulting in Wytheville, Va., offers the following insight on how to make alternative feeds work in your operation.

"Feed costs over the last year have been crippling for anyone feeding animals in the U.S. and throughout most of the world. Common ingredients like corn, soybean meal, canola and cottonseed have risen dramatically, drastically altering feed costs. The rising commodity prices have driven the prices of alternative feeds along with forages. There have simply been very few "good" buys over the last year, with the exception of good (lucky) market timing.

What to look for in an alternative feed
"For purposes of this paper, an alternative feed is anything other than soybean meal or corn, as they are widely available in every region of the U.S. and their price moves the market for nearly all feeds. Many other alternative feeds are available locally in different areas. Given the scope and variety of alternative feeds in the U.S., there are numerous possibilities for feeding heifers.

"When considering a new potential feed for heifers, it is important to know the nutrient content. A certified Forage Testing Lab is the appropriate place to determine nutrient content. Either a NIR or Wet Chemistry analysis is performed. The NIR requires a database of similar feeds to predict nutrient content of a given sample. Thus, NIR is very accurate for feeds that are routinely tested like corn silage, alfalfa hay and cottonseed. Feeds that are unique or that are rarely tested may not be appropriate for NIR analysis. Wet Chemistry is when a chemical analysis is performed on the feed. Most nutritionists prefer Wet Chemistry for unusual feeds and for mineral analysis. Typically, Wet Chemistry is more costly.

"Conceptually, the important nutrients in heifer rations are protein, fiber, energy and minerals. Heifer rations are simpler than milk cow rations, and the parameters involved to evaluate are relatively few. Measures like rumen undegradable protein, amino acid content, soluble protein, and fatty acid content are less important in heifer rations. Protein is typically expressed as Crude Protein, fiber is expressed as Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) or Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF), energy is estimated by metabolizable energy (ME), net energy (NEL, NEM or NEG) or NFC, and minerals are expressed as a percentage of dry matter."

Source: Dairy Calf and Heifer Association