This article is part of our series of original articles on emerging featured topics. Please check here to see other articles in this series.
Feed costs represent 40 to 60% of the total cost of producing milk on dairy farms in the US. Prices paid for purchased commodities or forages greatly impact feed cost and farm profitability. Dairy farmers have little control over these prices, especially when purchased on the immediate market. Current prices for commodities reflect changes in supply and demand due to US and global weather patterns, international purchases, and usage of commodities by ethanol production, all of which are outside a farmer’s control. However, efficient usage of these commodities and forages on-farm and minimizing feed wastage or shrink are under a farmer’s control and greatly impact a farm’s profitability. In this two-part series, we will examine areas within a feeding program where farmers can reduce feed shrink and better utilize money spent for feed ingredients. The first article of the series will specifically examine:
Many of these areas and concepts regarding feeding and feed management for the dairy herd may seem simple, but in my experience, they are often the practices that separate profitable dairy herds from the less profitable ones.
Minimizing feed waste or shrink is one aspect of a feeding program which must be managed since it impacts feed usage and costs as well as overall profitability of a dairy operation. In order to manage the amount of feed used on farm, actual usage and disappearance needs to be measured. The amount of each commodity needs to be weighed at either delivery or harvest and at feed out. The difference between these amounts reflects the shrink or amount of feed lost due to:
Today, the routine use of scales for delivery trucks and feed tracking software, for example Feed Watch™ or TMR Tracker™, make these calculations routine and easier for managers to detect problems or opportunities.Once detecting that losses are greater than established benchmarks or have increased over time, feeding practices can be evaluated and then modified to decrease feed shrink.
Generally, dry commodities stored in bins have less storage losses (usually less than 4%) compared to those stored in open-face, 3-sided commodity sheds (5 to 15% depending on commodity). Certain commodities, like whole fuzzy cottonseed, will not flow through feed bins and thus, must be stored in a commodity shed.Weather, i.e. wind, can increase feed shrink not only at delivery and storage, but as importantly when commodities are loaded into the TMR mixer.These wind-related losses can occur when commodities are stored in open-sided commodity sheds as well as feed bins and liquid delivery systems.Properly constructed windbreaks can help minimize losses.For example, “L” shaped commodity sheds which are positioned perpendicular to the prevailing winds can help reduce feed shrink.Totally enclosed commodity sheds or an enclosed area when adding commodities stored in a bin or liquid delivery system to the TMR mixer can reduce feed shrink related to weather and may be cost effective when considering reductions in feed shrink.
Storage losses with wet commodities, such as wet brewers or distillers grains, are higher (generally 20 to 25%) than when stored as a dry ingredient and, as such, these higher losses must be considered when calculating the economics of using these feeds.Fermented forages properly stored in bags, uprights, bunkers, or trenches generally have storage losses of 5 to 10%.Improperly stored forages, especially those stored in bunkers and trenches, can have storage losses from 10 to 15% or higher.Alfalfa hay stored inside generally average 3 to 5% feed shrink as a result of storage losses.
Dairy feeding programs that wisely use feed, labor, and economic resources start and end with good communication between dairy managers, nutritional consultants, and feeding employees. Dairy managers should work closely with their nutritionist and other consultants to develop and modify the feeding and overall management program throughout the feeding season. All parties need to constantly work on developing an ongoing relationship that results in a true dialog. Improvements in your bottom line can occur through discussions related to different ways to group, feed, and/or manage your herd. These discussions also can help when contracting for commodities, both related to tonnage needed and alternative commodities which can save feed dollars or improve milk production. Sometimes, producers incorrectly believe that they do not need to oversee and/or understand general feeding and nutritional concepts. Understanding these concepts is critical for this dialog and to understand when and how to make minor adjustments or temporary changes before they become disasters.
Besides maintaining good communication between the owner/manager and consultants, communication to and from the personnel actually feeding the cows and heifers is critical. Oftentimes, the person feeding the cows can provide invaluable insight as to why things are not working as expected or suggest improved ways to feed, reduce feed shrink, and manage the feeding program. On-going training, not just new employee training, should be provided. Feeders need to understand the why’s and why not’s of feeding procedures, along with how to perform their job responsibilities. This education helps explain why certain steps are critical, why ingredients need to be added in certain order and amounts, and practices that should be avoided.
After forages are harvested for a given crop year, a plan for using these forages should be developed and modified as needed throughout the year. This allows one to efficiently use available labor, feed, facilities, and economic resources. By taking preliminary forage samples and developing preliminary diets for a herd, forages can be allocated to various groups of dairy cows or heifers based on their nutritional needs. Additional forages, if needed, can be purchased or plans made as to what and how much is needed. Also, commodity needs can be assessed as to the amount needed, and commodities can be purchased or booked at the appropriate time to minimize feed costs and economic risk.
When developing this feed usage plan, labor resources and facilities need to be considered. All of us understand that the more uniform in production, stage of lactation (i.e. fresh cows, late lactation cows with body condition score ≥ 3.0), and number of lactations a group of cows are, the closer we can match their nutritional needs. These rations would ideally result in a higher income over feed cost versus those from a group of cows whose performance is less homogenous. Economic models developed by Dr. Victor Cabrera at the University of Wisconsin (2016 Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference) indicate at least 2 nutritional groups of lactating cows plus a fresh cow group may result in higher total income over feed cost. This model used data from 5 herds with 331 to 1460 total dairy cows and compared the income over feed costs associated with 1, 2 or 3 nutritional groups after they were 21 days in milk. The largest gain in income over feed cost was seen when the number of nutritional groups of cows was increased from 1 to 2 ($39 increase/cow/year difference between 1 and 2 nutritional groups). When the number of nutritional groups was increased from 2 to 3, only a $7 increase/cow/year was estimated based on scenario assumptions. Feed costs and milk prices also greatly impacted economic returns associated with the numbers of nutritional groups of cows. When deciding the number of nutritional groups, total impact on income, not just income over feed cost should be considered. Thus, herd size and feeding labor, equipment, and facilities needs to be considered.
Depending on the size of the dairy herd and economics, one or multiple total mixed rations (TMR) can be mixed and fed to the lactating herd. The definition of a TMR is a mixture of all the forages (dry hay and silages), concentrates, and mineral, vitamin, and additive premixes blended together and offered to a group of cows as one feed mixture. Proper preparation of a TMR reduces sorting by dairy cows and improves the consistency of nutrients provided to the rumen microbes, assuming cows consume somewhat uniform sized meals throughout the day.
Components to review include, but not limited to:
In the next part of this series, we will examine ways that dairy operations can better manage their available feed and labor resources to improve a farm’s profitability.
Donna Amaral-Phillips, PhD
Extension Professor and Extension Dairy Nutritionist
University of Kentucky