Mixing feed is one of the most critical jobs on the dairy and, depending on how good or bad a job is done, it can have a big effect on the bottom line. Basically, making a good mix is a combination of science and art.
The science is provided by your nutritionist and the manufacturer of the equipment you use. The art is provided by you and the person doing the feeding – how you adapt to local feedstuffs, use your equipment and daily conditions on the dairy. Both the art and the science must work to make a good ration for your cows.
Your nutritionist is a trusted partner on your dairy, and you have selected them because you have confidence they will take your locally produced feeds and match them with purchased feeds to provide you with a ration (when mixed properly) that gives you the desired herd performance. You now must take that ration and make the mix.
The art of the mix can be broken down into three simple activities: weighing the feedstuffs, loading the feedstuffs, and time and speed of mixing.
Accuracy of weighing the feed is first. Most mixer scales are very reliable and take very little if any maintenance to maintain accuracy, but it is a good idea to check the weight with a known weight. A lot of people will climb on the mixer and, if the scale is close to the person’s weight on the home scale, they feel they are good to go. However, checking the weight of a 200-pound person with a mixer that holds 25,000 pounds or more is not very accurate. The easiest way to check the scale accuracy is to fill the mixer and then check it on a drive-over scale – but not everyone has a drive-over scale.
The next best method is with a known weight. The closer you can get to the weight you mix is best. I have seen people use tractor weights, bag feed and even grain shipments. The scales for agriculture use are designed to have 98 percent accuracy, but most are more accurate.
Now that you know you are weighing accurately, it is time to load feed. I’m a big believer in having the feed as close to the mixer as possible. This benefits you by keeping loading time to a minimum, reducing shrink from spillage and giving the loader operator somewhere to place excess feedstuffs left in the bucket instead of running back to the pile or dumping it in the mixer. The next question is: In which order do I load feed? The simple answer is: “It depends.” Different mixer manufacturers have different suggested loading orders.
Some want grains first, others want hay first; some want liquids first, others want liquids last. Loading order is something that must be determined on the farm. Feedstuffs and quantities vary, mixer function varies, moisture levels vary, and mix size varies. All of these variables affect the loading order. Not one-size-fits-all, the mixing order for the fresh cow ration may be different than the order for the high cows. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of working with your nutritionist and equipment dealer to evaluate your different rations once mixed to make sure your loading order is correct.
Now it’s time to mix. The majority of people start the mixer, then begin loading the mixer. Most will also run the mixer at PTO speed. Others load at an idle, then speed it up after the last ingredient. Some run when adding liquids, and others load all ingredients and then start the mixer. Generally, a three- to five-minute mix time is suggested after the last ingredient is loaded. If you need more than a five-minute mix time, you may want to consider changing the mixer speed. In some cases, you need to increase mixer speed and, in other cases, you may need to slow the mixer down.
Again, I cannot tell you what is best for your farm and your feeds. I can say: If you are running the mixer at PTO speed during loading, you want all your feedstuffs close by, and you want to use a big bucket so run time is kept to a minimum. If you run the mixer at an idle while loading, it will help you to fill the mixer to capacity, while having the mixer at rest during loading will limit capacity.
Other questions to ask are: How does your mixer impact particle length, fuel consumption, mixer wear and overall time to load mix and feed? There is no right or wrong way to run your mixer in general; the key is to evaluate what is going on at your farm and adjust the actions to provide you the greatest benefit.
We started out talking about how mixing feed is a combination of art and science. The science is pretty easy for most of us because someone else does this activity. The art is more personal and, in most cases, more difficult because feeding must be completed on a regular basis by someone on the farm. You can take advantage of the science and buy the best, most modern mixer on the market and hire a nutritionist who is the most respected in the industry; you, however, will not maximize your return unless you also invest in the art of weighing, loading and mixing the rations.
Ed Jackman has spent 38 years advising dairy farms in the U.S. and Canada. Email Ed Jackman.