Low milk prices can have a real impact on dairy farmers. When this occurs, cash becomes short and farmers have to make some tough decisions. They start to look for ways to reduce expenses while also maintaining milk production.

Typically, the biggest expense for a dairy farm is feed costs – both purchased and farm-produced.

Below are three questions to save money on feed costs for either producers or nutritionists.

The producer perspective

They’re your cows. It’s your farm. It’s your money. But how much do you really understand about how cows convert feedstuffs to milk? It can get complicated quick. So you’ve hired a nutritionist you trust to specialize in this area. However, it’s ultimately your management practices that impact your business.

1.  Am I feeding high-quality feedstuffs and maximizing feed efficiency?


Often when farmers focus on saving money, they forget the importance of quality. Feedstuffs with highly digestible nutrients will result in more efficient milk production. The tendency is to reduce diet cost when margins are tight, but farmers will come out ahead by focusing on improved feed efficiency and increasing income over feed cost instead.

For example, a nutritionist will balance for protein requirements on a digestible or metabolizable basis. Farmers need to ensure they are buying feedstuffs on a digestible basis too (i.e., cost of digestible protein versus cost of crude protein).

2.  Do the cows have feed when they want to eat?

Cows are elite athletes that have the metabolism of a marathon runner. When they’re ready to eat, farmers need to make sure the food is available. This may seem obvious, but it’s something that can always be improved upon. Encourage those who work around the cows to make sure there is feed available when the cows come back from the parlor and to push up feed regularly. Pushing up feed more frequently will help prevent cows from sorting and ensure each cow gets similar mouthfuls of feed.

3.  How much feed is being wasted?

Wasted feed is also called shrink. Ideally, all feed should be utilized for productive purposes. However, a percentage of the feed is lost due to mold, handling, birds, wind, etc. Minimizing this loss is key.

  • Farmers should use pelleted products when available to reduce shrink from handling and wind loss. Estimates to the cost of shrink can be as much as 5 percent. If shrink is reduced by 5 percent for a protein supplement valued at $250 per ton, the savings could be $18,250 per year for a 1,000-cow dairy consuming 8 pounds of protein supplement daily.

  • Farmers should also pay attention to the face of their silage pile, as it can lead to significant economic costs and shrink. A well-faced silage pile reduces exposure to oxygen and helps minimize forage spoilage and nutrient loss.

  • Adding refusals from one group of cows to another group’s ration (i.e., feeding high-production cow refusals to the low-production cow ration) is a common method of recapturing feed value.

The nutritionist perspective

The producer has entrusted you to oversee the nutrition of his or her cows. It is your job to ensure the cows are consuming the proper nutrients to meet their needs in a cost-effective manner and meet the production goals for the herd.

1. Am I optimizing rumen function?

Rumen microbes convert carbohydrates (fiber and non-fiber) into volatile fatty acids, which are an energy source for the cow. When the microbial population turns over, the expired microbes become a protein source for the cow. However, for the rumen to function optimally, a stable rumen environment must be maintained.

This includes a consistent pH level, which can be managed by feeding a diet with effective fiber, keeping starch at a moderate level and through feed management. Additionally, managing unsaturated fatty acid levels will help optimize rumen fermentation. Unsaturated fatty acids are toxic to rumen bacteria.

They react with the lipid membrane of bacteria cells, causing disruption and cell death. Due to a reduced population of fiber-utilizing bacteria, there is a decrease in fiber digestion.

2. Do I have the best ration option formulated?

The only thing certain in life is change. Feedstuffs and prices change over time, so it makes sense diets should change. I recommend optimizing rations with restrictions on key nutrients and forage amounts. Ration software has improved greatly, and optimizers are more user-friendly. Nutritionists can save “ration shots” and review the options for savings and feasibility.

A customer may place pressure to lower the cost of the diet, but consider net economics of income over feed costs by focusing on feed efficiencies and balancing the quality of the nutrients with performance delivered. You could end up with a diet that meets or exceeds the cows’ needs at a lower price point. Therefore, it’s best to find those options before a competing nutritionist does.

3. Is the formulated ration being consumed by the cows?

There are multiple rations on the farm: One that is formulated, one fed to the cows and one actually eaten by the cow (which can also differ between dominant and subordinate cows). Those who feed the cows are key to helping ensure the cattle receive the diet that is formulated.

The nutritionist creates the recipe, but ultimately the feeder is the chef. Feeders should be made aware of how their actions impact the cows’ ration.

  • Mixing deviations. There are significant differences between what is intended to go in a diet and what is actually added to the diet. Some deviation will occur, since life isn’t perfect and feeds are often added with a payloader bucket.

    However, minimizing these deviations will result in improved performance and less wasted feed. Deviations can be identified easily if a herd uses a feed management system such as EZ-Feed, Feed Supervisor or TMR Tracker. These systems can provide evaluations of deviations by feeder and ingredient over time. Deviations by feeder can be improved by training or incentives. Deviations by ingredient are often found in lower-inclusion ingredients (which also tend to be the more expensive ingredients).

    A solution to deviations in ingredients is mixing a pre-batch. The pre-batch often contains the two or three lowest-inclusion ingredients. The amount depends on how much is needed to feed all the cows for a period of time (usually one to three days). The pre-batch is first mixed together separately and then added to the TMR instead of as individual ingredients.

  • Uniform distribution along the bunk. The TMR should look the same as you walk down along the bunk. Large clumps of haylage in the bunk and difference in particle size distribution are indicators of TMR mixing issues. In general, there needs to be adequate blending of the ration without excessive mixing time. I’d recommend a TMR audit as a good starting point for herds experiencing issues in TMR distribution.

Asking the above questions and having impactful discussions with the herd management team will improve your feed costs as well as income over feed costs. Profitable milk production begins with healthy diets balanced for the level of milk production set by the farmer.  end mark

Robin R. Rastani