To say managing dairy cow feeding programs was a challenge in 2009 is a monumental understatement. The price squeeze put a lot of people in a bind and, in many cases, not a lot has changed from a financial standpoint.

"Feeding cows in 2010 will likely be more of the same," says Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois extension dairy specialist. "Probably not quite as bad as in 2009, but not really good, either."

However, there were plenty of lessons to be learned from 2009. In order to take a look back to look forward, Hutjens put together a survey of dairy nutritionists, veterinarians and dairy educators to find the three best and worst, or incorrect, decisions dairy managers made last year.

He shared these results with attendees of the Four-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference in Dubuque, Iowa, last week:

  • Survey results showed that the very best thing dairy managers did last year was to pay attention to forage management. Good managers targeted excellent forage quality and remained focused on this goal, regardless of the milk price.
  • Ranked second in good decisions was staying the course. Managers didn't deviate from their objectives and they didn't start pulling things from the rations just for the sake of pulling them.
  • Third on the list of good decisions, managers and their nutritionists fine-tuned rations to make sure that cow performance and cost efficiency were maximized.

Other interesting points mentioned, according to Hutjens, included maintaining high morale and positive attitude with family members and hired labor, feed contracting, strategic culling, financial management and working with their bankers, amino acid balancing which reduced protein purchases, grouping cows and bringing heifers back to the farm to reduce cost.

On the flip side, dairy managers did not do everything well last year.

  • The top poor decisions included reducing feed and reducing dry matter intakes, removing feed additives — including vitamins, minerals or other additives — from the ration, and not staying the course.
  • Next in order of importance from the respondents were: avoiding financial support, using poor-quality forages, reducing hoof care and poor cow comfort.
  • In addition, other poor management decisions included not participating in the Cooperatives Working Together herd buy-out program, incorrect culling decisions, not using records, reducing herd-health programs and neglecting heifer programs.

"Our milk-price challenges returned in February," says Hutjens. "Dairy managers will need to continue to plan for variable shifts in milk prices, feed prices and profit margins."