Precision feeding helps reduce feed cost

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Editor's note: This Practice Builder was contributed by contributed by Tom Nauman, head nutritionist at Hoober Feeds in Gordonville, Pa.

For several years now, efforts have been under way to convince the dairy nutrition industry in the Mid-Atlantic region to employ a strategy of feeding cows known as "precision feeding." This has been done with the purpose of reducing levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in dairy manure so as to reduce the amount of these nutrients that reach the Chesapeake Bay. I had the opportunity to provide some basic information on this concept in this "Practice Builder" column two years ago, and this article serves as a follow-up to that information. The concept of precision feeding involves the use of detailed forage testing and the latest computer models in order to obtain the goals of lower N and P in the manure. Here are some of the things we have found out.

First, P levels of the diet can be reduced to NRC levels with no detrimental effect on milk production, reproduction or any other health aspect of dairy cattle. Almost all of the dairy nutrition industry in the Mid-Atlantic region has reduced P intakes to NRC levels or even a bit lower. In addition to saving feed dollars for dairy farmers, we are seeing reduced levels of P in the manure. A challenge that we are having, however, is reducing manure P levels where high amounts of some feed by-products are being used. For example, some farmers have had to reduce intakes of corn distillers in order to lower levels of P in the manure.

Second, reducing N levels of the diet is much trickier because the main source of nitrogen in the diet is the protein that we feed to dairy animals. As a whole, the Mid-Atlantic region is feeding lower protein levels to cows than we did in the past, but many nutritionists are still hesitant to get their clients diets down below 16 percent crude protein. We have been blessed, however, with a number of tools to help us in being able to do a better job of balancing amino acids so that nitrogen levels of the diet can be lowered. Several new dairy nutrition models have been made available that take the guesswork out of obtaining a good amino acid balance. These include the AMTS lineup of programs, the NDS Professional program and the Nittany Cow program. These programs use the latest amino acid research and a rumen sub-model to help us feed lower levels of nitrogen without sacrificing any aspect of cow productivity. By using one of these types of ration formulation programs, we have been able to meet the challenge of lowering N intake while at the same time improving income over feed costs.

Third, the NRCS has stepped up efforts to encourage farmers to employ these nutrition strategies by way of the Feed Management Plan program. When a farmer signs up for this program, he receives supplemental funding to help defray the costs of supplemental feed testing and manure testing. The program has been a little slow getting out of the gate, but it is starting to pick up steam as more farmers learn about it and more plan writers become available.

Overall, dairy farmers in the Northeast are being progressive and doing their part in the effort to clean up the bay. Our local universities have been extremely helpful in providing information to farmers and dairy industry professionals in order to aid this effort. Farmers that are fully employing the concept of precision feeding are benefiting by reducing feed costs while improving the environment at the same time.

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