Take a data approach to feeding strategies

In the current dairy economy, we must scrutinize every purchase and product use. Since feed represents such a significant expense to the dairy, evaluation of the ration and the cost effectiveness of each ingredient are critical to maintain optimal milk production, health and reproductive performance.

All too often we rely on expert opinions, first principles and/or trends to make significant economic decisions on the dairy. In some cases, this decision making approach may be appropriate. But in most circumstances, we must really rely on data to make decisions.

The place to start is with routine forage analyses. Capturing the current nutrient profile of the forages being fed and those destined to be fed in the near future is critical to ration balancing.

Given the cost of premium ingredients and additives, small changes in the nutrient profile can have significant effects on the economics of a ration. Frequent analyses to measure and monitor changes represent a small investment in the feeding program.

Are on-farm forages always best?

The next decision is which ingredients to feed. This must also include on-farm forages. There may be times when purchase of an off-farm feedstuff has an economic advantage over feeding on-farm feeds. If we use a nutrient-based economic approach to ration formulation along with careful economic evaluation, these decisions will become clear.

There are many premium feed ingredients that lack adequate research to make an effective decision on their use. Companies that invest in the research and development of a product should be able to present results of on-farm field trials where a control group was used in the evaluation. In this way a decision can be made, based on a valid statistical analysis.

Having updated parameters regarding body condition, body weight and environmental conditions are also critical to accurately estimating the milk production and component responses to ration and ingredient changes. Using generic or expected values will not allow for a sensitive prediction.

The final approach to make the decision should be a sensitivity analysis. The evaluation should include an analysis through a range of milk and component responses, milk and component prices and ingredient price. The strategy may prove to be economically advantageous under certain conditions of milk or ingredient price but may be negative under others. The "break-even" price is an important consideration. There must be a return on investment to make the decision profitable.

Let the cow guide you

In the end, we must be able to track the response or lack of response that was realized. With valid forage analyses, ration balancing software and correct inputs, we should be able to very accurately predict the response.

We must keep in mind, however, that we are dealing with a biological system with many uncontrolled variables. That is why it is critical to track the actual response in order to follow the decision through.

Engage your nutritionist, veterinarian and other key consultants in the feed evaluation process and keep in mind that data-based decisions will provide the highest level of confidence. Trends and opinions may lead us in the correct direction but can also lead down the wrong economic path. Take the data approach.