Feed represents more than half of a typical dairy farm’s operating costs. When milk prices decline, cutting feed costs is often a tempting first strategy for producers and their nutrition consultants.

Kirk david
Director, Dairy Technical Services, North America / Phibro Animal Health Corporation

Even when milk prices are low, cows should be fed a properly balanced ration that allows them to reach their genetic potential for milk and component production while reducing inefficiencies and waste. When it comes to nutrition management, dairy producers should weigh the risks of short-term cost-cutting that may lead to long-term and expensive consequences.

It’s easy to feel powerless when milk prices fall sharply. However, there are many things dairy producers can do with diets and feeding management to maintain profitability or minimize losses. These do’s include:

1.Maximize use of good-quality, homegrown forages and grains. Feeding ingredients grown on the dairy typically lowers feed costs since the amount of purchased feeds is reduced. Proper timing of harvest to achieve the optimal digestibility and yield, and appropriate storage to protect and maintain quality and reduce dry matter losses, are necessary to take full advantage of homegrown ingredients.

2.Include affordable byproduct ingredients. Many byproduct commodities can vary greatly in nutrient content, so frequent testing is important to be certain they fit properly into your feeding program.


Work with a feed supplier that has quality assurance programs to ensure these ingredients have stable nutrient content as well as protection from mycotoxins, pathogenic bacteria, drug residues and other hazards.

You can lower the risk of dietary nutrient variation associated with byproducts simply by incorporating multiple ingredients into the ration. Consider using blended commodities in the diet rather than depending upon relatively large amounts of individual byproducts.

3.Focus on components. Most U.S. milk markets pay for milk fat, protein and other solids, not fluid milk alone. Be sure your feeding strategy is effective in maintaining or increasing milk component yields to help maximize income.

A key tactic for increasing milk components is to ensure optimal ruminal fermentation with the proper balance of fibrous and non-fibrous carbohydrates, along with high-quality rumen-degradable and undegradable proteins.

4.Maximize milk quality premiums. Although proper sanitation and milking protocols are most important for maintaining milk quality, feeding programs can be developed to help maintain a properly functioning immune system which can, in turn, help combat mastitis and lower somatic cell counts. Such programs include appropriate concentrations of vitamins and trace minerals as well as the inclusion of proven feed additives.

5.Minimize shrink. Shrink is the feed purchased or harvested that never gets into the cow … it’s simply wasted. This can include dry matter losses from poorly stored silage, excessive feed refusals, windblown feed, broken bags, excessive overfeeding and inaccurate mixing.

6.Reconsider the number of TMRs. Although one-group TMRs can provide significant labor savings in some herds, those savings may be outweighed by inefficient use of nutrients when milk prices drop.

This ration is typically designed to meet the needs of the highest-producing, early lactation cows, which can be wasteful when fed to mid- and late-lactation animals, due to energy and protein supplied well beyond requirements. Even large herds feeding multiple rations should assess whether an additional ration would better fit a feeding group’s needs and therefore improve efficiency.

7.Evaluate continued use of feed additives. Use only scientifically tested and proven feed additives. Work with your nutrition adviser to verify how any given product may have a role in your herd. Keep in mind that many additives are included to help support health and reproduction. Although their removal may not have an immediate impact on milk and component yield, it can affect production in the future.

It is likely low milk prices will rebound, giving way to higher milk prices. Don’t sacrifice future performance, which will hurt overall profitability just months ahead. Some important things dairy producers don’t want to do during periods of low milk prices include:

8.Cut back on transition feeding programs. Specialized rations for cows immediately before and after calving may seem expensive, but the payback on an effective transition cow feeding and management program is high.

These special diets, fed for a short time to a limited number of animals, can result in significantly lower disease incidence, improved fertility and higher peak milk yield (with each pound of peak milk leading to 200 to 250 pounds of milk produced over the entire lactation).

9.Skimp on replacement animal rations. It’s tempting to cut back on heifer feeding programs, since these animals do not contribute directly to milk income. Although it’s smart to reduce excesses in replacement feeding programs, it is unwise to make changes that will slow heifer growth, which can delay their entry into the milking herd and may reduce first-lactation milk yield.

This includes young calves since it has been shown that each pound of average daily gain prior to weaning results in 850 pounds more milk during the first lactation.

10.Sacrifice reproductive performance. No matter what the price of milk, it remains critically important to have cows begin cycling early, be bred successfully and complete pregnancy with delivery of a healthy calf. Each additional day open adds significant cost to the dairy operation.

Cows need a sound transition feeding and management program to avoid metabolic and infectious diseases after calving that can lower fertility. They need adequate energy and appropriate balance of proteins to maintain body condition so they cycle properly and produce a strong, viable egg and embryo.

Animals need to be provided with feed that is free of, or protected from, pathogens and toxins which can lead to early loss of pregnancy or abortion. Saving money by cutting back in any of these areas affecting reproduction will have negative impacts far into the future.

These nutrition and feeding management do’s and don’ts help improve profitability no matter where milk is priced, but become even more important when milk prices are low and there is less room for inefficiency.

Work with your nutrition adviser to develop a sound, cost-effective feeding program, using current ingredient costs and analyses, to not just survive this difficult period of low milk prices but also to be prepared to thrive when milk prices recover. PD

David Kirk, Ph.D., PAS, is a dairy technology manager with Phibro Animal Health Corporation with 25 years of experience as a dairy nutritionist in the feed industry.

david kirk

David Kirk
Dairy Technology Manager
Phibro AnimalHealth Corp.