On any given day, the typical dairyman loses count of the challenges he deals with. From labor, to mechanical issues, to sick or downed cows and paying the feed bill, the list goes on, seemingly forever.

One frequent challenge accounting for much of the drain on overall farm performance and profitability is lack of consistency. Consistency issues are pervasive throughout the typical dairy operation. There is hardly an area that cannot be adversely affected by challenges to consistency.

Adequate management or control of the many variable components is difficult on the best of days.

One prominent area of concern is the feed and nutrition program.

The lactating dairy cow does not deal well with change or variation, especially when it comes to the feed and nutrient flow into the rumen and downstream from there.


Remember, the lactating cow is a “continuous flow” production system. In order for the mammary gland to produce consistently, the nutrient flow into the animal must be adequate. This is a prerequisite, particularly as we focus on performance efficiency. The consistency of nutrient flow is, in my opinion, paramount to optimal feed efficiency.

So what are areas of feed and nutrition variation that can have significant effects to lactation performance on farm? Many of these are obvious; some not as much:

1. Forage variation – Since, on most farms, the forage base makes up a significant portion of the nutrient content and the vast majority of the effective fiber in the ration, addressing forage variation is a large focus. For farms that produce their own silages and hays, variation control needs to start at the planting and then harvesting stages.

With crop planting and different harvest times and growing conditions (soil types, moisture availability, plant maturities, etc.), this can create significant swings in critical nutrient content, and for silages, particularly dry matter levels.

Use of a well-designed inoculant (notice the word “cheap” is not included in the description) is important to accelerate silage pH reduction, preservation and dry matter retention. Have your nutritionist involved in this process since these forages may be part of your feeding program for many months to come.

Another potential issue in controlling variation is for farms that purchase forages. If the farm purchases silage from a local grower, it is highly useful to work with the grower so: a) you know exactly what you are getting, and b) you may hopefully influence what he is producing and harvesting in order that the best and most consistent products possible can be purchased.

The same works for hay. It is important the farm works with a single, reputable supplier as much as absolutely possible to purchase the best, most consistent product possible.

For all forages, testing nutrient content regularly is a key. For high-moisture products such as high-moisture corn, byproducts like distillers grain, gluten feed, brewers grains and vegetable waste, closely monitoring dry matter content is also important to keeping ration dry matter levels stable.

Variation in ration dry matter can have a significant effect on milk volume as well as components. This is particularly important for fresh and early lactation cows. Fortunately, this can be monitored and adjusted on-farm on a day-to-day basis fairly easily with use of feeding software currently available.

Sampling and monitoring both nutrient levels and digestibilities is also important to maintaining a constant nutrient flow to the animal. It is imperative for the nutritionist to monitor these values as rations are changed to compensate for forages or other ingredient changes.

Obviously, there is a limit on how often rations can be changed from a practical standpoint. Many farms modify their diets only on occasion, and they are potentially doing themselves disservice given forage and feed variations.

2. Feed ingredient variation – Variation in some of the more basic feed ingredients is fairly small. Corn and soybean meal are both generally consistent, although, some small variation in starch and protein contents is not uncommon. For corn, more variability develops with processing – for example, steam flaking corn.

Byproducts are another story. Commonly fed byproducts such as distillers grains (wet and dry), corn gluten feed (wet and dry), whole cottonseed, hominy, wheat midds, etc., can vary quite a lot from load to load. In recent years, a great deal of research has gone into the use of distillers grains in dairy rations.

Unfortunately, it is very common to see significant variation in these and other ingredients in terms of protein, fat, starch and fiber. Distillers have been shown to vary significantly (3 to 4 percentage points) in crude protein content as well as fat content in loads coming from a single production point and more so between multiple facilities. Significant differences may also be seen between brokers and byproduct sellers.

Like forages, byproducts should be routinely tested and closely monitored. A dairy should have its own quality control program for both incoming ingredients and finished rations, just like a feed manufacturer.

3. Ration mixing and delivery variation – This topic alone has been the subject of multiple articles and research. Conventional wisdom tells us there are at least four versions of every ration on the farm:

  • The one the nutritionist formulates
  • The one the feeder loads into the mixer
  • The one delivered to the cows
  • The one the cows actually eat

The goal is for all four of these to be as similar as possible. Unfortunately, the majority of the time there can be quite a lot of variation between the four. It is critical for the nutritionist, the dairyman and the feeder to work closely together to ensure the ration is carefully mixed, but not overmixed. The person(s) in charge of feed mixing and delivery must be well-trained in both responsibilities.

This is an issue I have seen many dairies struggle with. Due to either the mixer operator’s lack of training or equipment issues, it is sometimes difficult for feed to be delivered evenly down the feed lane.

Keeping feed mixing equipment in good operating condition is important whether it be the blade on the screws or ribbons, the belt or screw operations, or the stops on the tub walls. Even small mechanical problems can alter the quality and texture of the feed mix, which ultimately can affect ration palatability.


The items listed above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues concerning feed and nutritional consistency on the farm. Efforts to minimize these issues should be shared by the dairyman, the nutritionist, the feeder and everyone else involved. A well-designed quality control program should be in place for incoming forages and ingredients and outgoing finished feed mixes.

Delivering a diet to the cows that is as consistent as possible every day should be the goal for every dairy. Done correctly, it will pay significant benefits in cow performance and health, feed efficiency and farm profitability.  end mark

PHOTO: Dairies should have quality control programs in place for both incoming ingredients and finished rations. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

Stephen B. Blezinger