Editor's note: Naji Nassereddine, dairy nutritionist from Chandler, Ariz., handled the following case study.

No client is perfect; each has something that can possibly be improved upon.

Imagine having a client who doesn't understand the impact of high-quality hay on milk production. That's the dilemma dairy nutritionist Naji Nassereddine encountered a few years ago on a 2,000-cow dairy located west of Phoenix, Ariz.

The dairy got its alfalfa hay from a local grower. Most of the alfalfa grown in the area is of pretty high quality, so perhaps the dairy owner had gotten spoiled over the years, and never really had to deal with bad hay. It's not uncommon for alfalfa hay grown in the area to have a relative feed value in excess of 200.

So, things were running pretty smoothly at the dairy, until one day a couple of years ago, Nassereddine received a phone call from the dairy owner, saying that milk production had dropped from approximately 73 pounds per cow per day (herd average) down to 68 pounds.

"Make me a ration for more milk," the owner told Nassereddine.

Nassereddine wanted to take a closer look. He asked the dairy owner if anything had changed, and the owner said "no." It was winter in Arizona, with mild weather conditions. The rations had not changed, so Nassereddine was temporarily stumped.

When he got to the dairy, Nassereddine and the herdsman walked around, first checking the cows and then the feed bunk. Certainly, if any mixing mistakes were occurring, Nassereddine could tell at a glance by looking at the ration being delivered to the cows. But the ration appeared OK.

Then, while walking past the hay stacks, Nassereddine noticed something. Normally, he tests the hay and spray-paints a number on each stack indicating the hay's relative feed value. He noticed that these stacks no longer had the "194" written on them, indicating a 194 relative feed value. The herdsman informed him that the "194" hay was gone and they were now feeding a new supply. The new supply had a relative feed value of 156. The owner said nothing had changed, but obviously something had.

When Nassereddine told the owner that the problem was probably related to lesser-quality hay, the owner's response was "no bullsh--." Nassereddine assured him it was not BS.

The owner still wanted Nassereddine to change the ration.

Realizing that he had to make the most of lesser-quality hay — after all, the owner had bought the stuff and wanted to use it — Nassereddine found a way to stretch the hay and supplement it with another fiber source, namely soy hulls in pelleted form. Soy hulls were a relatively good buy at the time — $115 to $120 per ton, compared to $165 per ton for alfalfa hay. (Remember, this was two years ago, before the big upswing in commodity prices.)

With the soy hulls, Nassereddine did what he could to approximate the higher-quality hay that was fed previously.

A reformulated ration did allow the milk average to go back up again. It rose above 70 pounds per cow per day, but didn't quite reach the previous level of 73 pounds.

The moral of the story: It's not always the ration, Nassereddine says. You have to go onto a dairy and identify the bottlenecks before you change a ration. In this case, the bottleneck was hay quality.