With overall feed costs representing anywhere from 35% to 70% of the total costs on a dairy farm, producers have unique strategies for managing feed costs and maintaining forage quality.
During the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit in February, two dairy producers shared how grouping cows based on each stage of lactation, fine-tuning crops from the chopper and utilizing risk management programs are helping them control feed costs in the midst of record-high grain prices across the market.
Optimizing each stage of lactation
Walt Moore of Walmoore Holsteins in Chester County, Pennsylvania, opened the panel discussion by sharing how four key crops and multiple different diets are helping him control feed costs. Moore is a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and his team milks approximately 1,025 cows and farms about 1,800 acres. They raise four main crops, including corn silage, alfalfa haylage, triticale and dry grass hay. Moore says keeping a close eye on things like moisture level is key to fine-tuning his crops throughout the season.
“I like to run the chopper because it’s something I enjoy, and I feel like I can kind of micromanage on the fly. If we’re in a hay field and I don’t think the quality is right or the moisture is off, we can divert loads down to the bunkers in the heifer barn. It helps us segregate, and we can fine-tune that way,” he shared during the discussion.
For corn silage in particular, Moore works to have enough inventory to last until December of each year to give the new-crop forage time to ferment. He also works closely with his nutritionist during the chopping phase to ensure high-quality feed.
“Our nutritionist comes out and we start chopping corn silage. We really try to dial in the moisture and length of cut. He’ll call me and tell me what to adjust, such as kernel process or length of cut,” he explained. “One year, we did a poor job of processing the corn silage as we chopped it. We also got this idea to re-process the corn silage, and it made a huge difference. The kernels weren’t broken up, and we re-processed and got about 6 pounds of milk per cow per day increase. So we’ve focused a lot more on that.”
Triticale has helped the operation with double cropping and gives them more yield per acre. According to Moore, by choosing to cut their low-lignin varieties of alfalfa haylage only four times, it has also widened their harvest window and reduced harvest costs while remaining an excellent forage source for the cows.
Moore also shared how grouping both his dry and lactating cows has helped him control feed costs. He focuses on two dry cow groups, including a far-off dry cow group and a close-up springing group. The springing group, which includes cows and heifers about three to four weeks prior to their due date, has a low-calcium diet to help mitigate any milk fever issues.
In addition to those, Moore’s feeding strategy includes six lactating diets.
“Six sounds like a lot, and it is a lot. But we’re trying to optimize each stage of lactation and really target groups of cows. We do this to try to best match the cows’ needs and keep feed costs in line,” he explained. The six groups are:
1. A post-fresh group for all cows. They are in this group an average of two-and-a-half to three weeks. He moves all first-lactation animals from the post-fresh group into one group.
2. All multiparous cows move from the post-fresh group into one of two “early lactation high groups.”
3. From the early lactation high groups, they move to a mid-lactation multiparous group as the cows progress through their lactation.
4. From the early first-lactation group, they move to a mid-lactation single parous group as the cows progress through their lactation.
5. They also have an “elite” single parous group. If they are under 50 days in milk (DIM) and milking 98 pounds or better, they go into that group.
6. They have a late-lactation multiparous “low group.”
When it comes to the feed for each of these diets, Moore said consistency is key. “My feeder is extremely consistent on the time he’s putting the feed down. We focus on consistency with the mixing times, too. We try to have that consistency so we’re not overmixing the feed but also giving them a well-blended mix,” he added.
Moore also monitors production for each group and communicates with his nutritionist to make real-time changes and optimize the feed available to them.
“I text my nutritionist daily. We have a report that does production by group, and we also have a tank average so he knows what’s going on,” Moore added. “He also has access to our feed supplier’s grain bank, he knows what our forages are, what we have contracted, and what the current prices are. Communication is key so we can optimize what we have available to us.”
Using risk management to lock in feed prices
For Jared Kurtz of Kurtland Farms in Berks County, Pennsylvania, monitoring prices and utilizing risk management programs has allowed him to manage feed costs and decrease their purchased feed costs over the last few years. The farm team milks about 315 cows and raises approximately 300 replacement heifers. They also farm 260 acres each year; most is double-cropped corn, rye and triticale
Kurtz, the fourth generation on his family’s farm, shared the history of their operation and how certain transformations have impacted feed costs. After building a new freestall barn in 2013 and installing robotic milking technology, they started noticing some mistakes they were making a few years later. By working with a consultant to analyze their numbers, they were able to drop their purchased feed costs by about 90 cents per hundredweight throughout 2017 to 2022.
Kurtz says one lesson they learned is the importance of maximizing intakes. “We need a good, strong pellet that comes into the robot. That really helps with intake,” he said.
They also use an automatic feed pusher to make sure feed is available at all times, enhancing intake and cow comfort. On the cropping side, Kurtz says their goal is high-yielding, highly digestible feed. All of their harvesting and manure hauling is custom, and they work to have corn planted by May 20. Because of that, Kurtz says he needs rye and triticale that matures early, making seed selection a top priority.
“Through the hybrid selection with our corn and cover crops, we’re a little more picky about the seeds we’re actually putting in the ground. I’ve noticed where we’ve seen our biggest return with the double crop is getting the seeds into the ground quickly. Selection on the variety is key,” he explained.
Risk management programs like Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) and Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) also help Kurtz monitor and lock in feed prices.
“I have a spreadsheet I use with historical prices for both milk and feed prices. I kind of use that as a guide to help me make my decisions on when I want to engage in the markets, whether it’s locking in a feed price or locking in a milk price,” Kurtz said. “Always track the numbers and have your pulse on the markets. When milk price dropped, we were protected with DMC and DRP, which really helped a lot.”
According to Kurtz, connecting all the dots – from the cow side to the crop side – also helps to keep their feed cost calculation in line over time.
“It takes a team, from the person who’s actually delivering the feed and feeding the cows to nutrition, harvesting and crop selection. It’s a whole cycle. If anything falls out of step at any point, it can affect that whole feed cost calculation,” he added.