Feed cost is the biggest concern for today’s dairy producers. The price of commodities such as cottonseed and soybeans, continues to drive up the cost of dairy rations. Today, nutritionists have to be able to identify the real feeding cost and help dairymen to find the equilibrium between ration cost and animal performance. Any changes to a dairy’s ration should positively correlate with animal performance, animal health and business profitability. Feed costs represent 45 to 60 percent of the total cost of milk production. Therefore, the key to maximizing dairy farm profitability is still to maintain adequate nutrient levels while managing feed costs carefully. We all know that when optimal nutrition is achieved, cows will produce better quality and larger quantities of milk and overall health will improve, resulting in saved veterinary fees, breeding costs and drug treatments.

A basic understanding of animal nutrition and how it applies to dairy cattle is essential to good herd management. Proper feeding of the dairy cow is complicated and requires a combination of scientific knowledge, creativity and good management skills to balance the needs of the rumen microorganisms and the needs of the animal. Nutritionists have to be able to use this knowledge and apply it not only as an animal nutrition concept but also as a business concept. Nutritionally, the objective of feeding dairy cattle is to provide a rumen environment that maximizes microbial population and growth. When designing rations for ruminants, one needs to consider both the animal and the rumen microorganisms. In order to optimize animal performance, the process of feeding the microbes may be compromised. When ration changes are made based solely on changes in commodity prices, animal performance may be negatively compromised. Instead of saving money, the dairyman will be in a worse situation.

For example, because of the rising prices for soybean and cottonseed meal, some dairy producers have been considering the increased use of dried distillers grains (DDG) as a replacement for the aforementioned ingredients in order to save money. Many university and field trials have shown that the replacement of soybean meal (which is a rich source of rumen degradable protein), with sources of rumen undegradable protein (RUP) such as DDG, often results in an inconsistent improvement in lactational performance. Inclusion of high amounts of DDG (36 percent of the diet’s dry matter [DM]), however, generally decreases milk yields and milk fat. In addition, the limited amount of some amino acids such as lysine in DDG may cause a decrease in milk protein content. Whole cottonseed is also used considerably in dairy rations, and it has also been a big concern of late when calculating a ration’s cost. Whole cottonseed is rich in energy, protein, fiber and phosphorus when compared to most of the many other ingredients available in the market. A comparison of the nutrient profile of whole cottonseeds with other commonly available protein supplements shows it to be the only ingredient rich in both energy and fiber. This feature is especially attractive to high-producing cows in negative energy balance, which are usually starving for both energy and fiber. The inclusion of whole cottonseed in the diet of early- lactation cows usually increases the amount of energy eaten while still increasing milk yields. It frequently has a positive effect on milk fat tests, though a negative effect on milk protein is usually observed.

Overall, the effect on milk price is usually positive. However, a reduction in pounds per head per day of whole cottonseed consumption might cause a reduction of total fat content in the ration (energy) which might result in negative results in animal performance. For example, the number one nutritional reason for poor reproductive performance in ruminants is the lack of energy. As they start the lactation process, cows are in a negative energy balance. In order to compensate for this deficiency, cows rely on their stores of fat (e.g., body condition score or BCS). The more energy included in the ration, the sooner they will come out of this negative balance. Cows that lose BCS will take longer to have their first estrus and ovulation, and they consequently have poor reproductive performance. Economically, in the short run the reduction of a ration’s price by replacing highly priced ingredients with lower priced ingredients might be the solution for the dairy business; however, animal performance might be compromised in the long run if the ration’s energy balance is not suitable to maintaining animal health.


Alternative feedstuffs have to be considering for such potential negative changes. The dollar value of any feed ingredient should reflect the nutrients it contains relative to the cost of nutrients in other available feedstuffs. Some tips to consider: 1) Look for alternative feed sources that might replace or complement the total ration by reducing feed cost while maintaining ration quality. 2) Be aware that a single feed ingredient in a ration is only part of the total ration. (Look at the whole picture, not only its parts). 3) The cost related to the reduction or the addition of a new feed ingredient in the ration has to pay off in its utilization by the cow. 6) Monitor feed cost and animal performance as ration changes are made. 4) Consult your nutritionist if considering the use of a new or substitute ingredient in the ration. Ask how it will be beneficial to animal performance and business profitability. 5) If your nutritionist provides you a commodity blend, ask him or her what is the exact proportion of each ingredient in the ration and the price you are paying for each ingredient. 6) Know your feed cost per animal per day. PD References omitted but are available upon request at editor@progressivedairy.com