Dairy farmers have had no shortage of feeding challenges throughout the past couple of years. High input costs, overall feed quality and feed availability issues have hampered profitability and productivity at times. Experts predict more of the same for 2012, with even more uncertainty regarding protein, energy and fiber prices. Continuing drought in the Southwest also complicates the feed quality picture, while it increases competition among dairy and beef producers for available feed.

Boomer gene
Ruminant Technical Services Manager / Arm & Hammer Animal and Food Production
Gene Boomer has a DVM degree from Kansas State University.

If that’s not enough to give you heartburn, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, alfalfa acreage has dropped from 3,184,000 acres in 2006 to 2,321,000 acres in 2011. That’s a decrease of 863,000 acres in just five years, largely due to high corn and other commodity prices.

There is talk of that trend reversing in some Western states this year with alfalfa acres in California, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona projected to increase 3 to 5 percent from 2011. Even so, experts don’t expect the high-quality alfalfa hay market to loosen significantly any time soon. Challenges to dairy profitability may hamper alfalfa inclusion in rations, as well.

What can you do?
Meanwhile, you still need to feed cows with the goal of maximizing milk production at an economically viable cost. That means you will probably need to approach rations a little differently to maintain performance and animal health.

• Center your feeding strategy around rumen health. Maintaining a healthy rumen is essential for optimum fiber digestion, sustaining milk fat levels and preventing health issues like acute and sub-acute ruminal acidosis, as well as displaced abomasums.


• Continue to value quality and consistency. Just because feed cost is high, that doesn’t mean you should cut everything from your ration. For example, the University of Illinois reports that a buffer returns 30 cents in added milk production for a six-cent investment, so the initial investment generates greater income over feed cost for the dairy.

• Evaluate the cost of every ration decision and be sure to put these decisions in perspective. Avoid short-sighted changes that save a dime but lose a dollar in the long run. For example, you may save the per-cow-per-day expense of an ingredient like a rumen bypass fat by removing it from a lactating ration and replacing it with an alternative source.

This decision generally doesn’t have an immediate impact, so it’s often seen as a prudent move. However, when energy levels dip and reproductive performance suffers six months later, it becomes apparent that the decision resulted in a larger negative economic impact than what was initially saved.

• Identify the most limiting nutrient. Milk production is limited by nutrients, not individual feeds. The most limiting nutrient in many early lactation diets is metabolizable energy. Therefore, energy density of the diet drives milk production and feed efficiency. Certain byproducts, if fed at a high inclusion rate, can limit metabolizable energy and feed efficiency.

Strategies that work
Reducing alfalfa in rations is one approach that’s gained traction in recent years. Alternatively, rations have increased in corn silage percentages to deal with high alfalfa cost, poor alfalfa quality or reduced availability. Depending on feed prices, feed cost per cow per day may drop anywhere from 15 to 30 cents with increased corn silage usage as protein prices remain competitive.

However, this can be a cause for concern. Higher energy levels replacing a rumen-buffering forage source means additional attention must be paid to rations formulated with more corn silage.

Boost ration DCAD levels in lactating rations by increasing potassium levels. This action helps maintain milk and milk fat levels and can prevent production losses from upcoming summer heat stress.

Byproduct feeds have also increased in usage. Be aware of trade-offs that may occur with substituting alternative feed sources. Again, cheap does not always equal best cost, especially if you sacrifice too much production or see any negative impacts to cow health.

Amino acid balancing is another tool that can be used to precisely deliver protein. Rations balanced for amino acids often feature lower levels of protein while improving protein utilization and milking herd performance. This can translate to environmental benefits through reduced nitrogen output.

Managing the feedbunk
Other management areas to explore include:

• Formulate multiple TMRs to precisely meet nutrient needs. This move allows you to use feed ingredients in a more targeted manner. Feeding a ration higher in forages to late-lactation and lower-producing cows can save 75 cents or more per day and can improve the metabolic health of late-lactation animals. This also enables you to feed more expensive ration components to high-producing and fresh cows, where you’ll see a bigger return on your investment.

• Cut shrink losses. Practice good feed delivery and feedbunk management to reduce feeding errors and dry matter losses.

Don’t forget about heifers
Lastly, devote attention to heifer nutrition. Heifers need to gain at least 1.7 pounds per day if you expect them to calve in a timely fashion and produce more milk than your herd production average. The cost of delayed calving – for added feed cost only – is at least $2 per day.

Therefore, keep ration formulation top of mind and deliver high-quality protein to make sure animals achieve the desired volumetric growth. Also, monitor heifer growth and development more closely than you may have done in the past.

Expensive feed sources should encourage you to be a little more picky when it comes to replacements and prompt you to cull poor performers sooner rather than later.

Feed prices are as high or higher than they’ve ever been, but ration decisions focused on long-term outcomes rather than short-term savings can ensure you get the most from your investment. PD

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Dr. Gene Boomer
Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition