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By Jim Salfer, University of Minnesota Dairy Extension

Supply/demand reports and futures prices indicate that we are going to have high feed costs in 2011. Fortunately, most of Minnesota experienced excellent growing conditions resulting in high yields that provide good inventories of both forages and grains for dairy producers.

Feed costs are the biggest single cost on dairy farms and with the outlook of lower milk prices and higher feed costs, it pays to develop strategies to keep feed costs as low as possible.

Here are five factors to consider as we move into the winter feeding season:

  1. Think about minimizing purchased feed costs. One way to minimize purchased feed cost is to maximize the feeding of home raised forage. No doubt, forages are now already in storage. But, if possible, select and feed out forage based on animal requirements. Bred heifers do not require a 150 relative feed quality forage for optimum performance. Work with your nutritionist to feed the combination of forages and home grown feeds that will minimize purchased feed costs.Some feeds may be a good buy but if they displace home raised feeds that are in inventory, it will increase purchased feed costs.
  2. Lactating cows pay the bills. Milk income must support all the feed for the lactating cows, dry cows, and all youngstock.A higher lactating:non-lactating animal ratio will help to minimize whole herd feed costs. Unless they are genetically superior, consider culling cows that will have a long dry period. If cows are milking well toward the end of lactation, consider shortening their dry period to 35 days for second and later lactation cows and 45 days for first lactation cows. Research has shown that these shorter dry periods have no detrimental affect on subsequent lactations and may actually result in less ketosis and better reproduction the following lactation. Another way to decrease the number of non-lactating cows is to get heifers bred in a timely manner. Many producers achieve high production with an average first calving age of 22 to 24 months. Develop a strategy to get all heifers not bred by 15 months inseminated soon. If adequate numbers of replacements are available, consider selling heifers that do not conceive in a timely manner. Cull all unthrifty heifers that had pneumonia as calves.
  3. Think about ingredient selection. This is the area that many producers and nutritionists first focus on when feed costs increase. It is always good to think about ingredient cost but more needs to be considered than just the price of ingredients. Cows like consistency. Constantly changing ingredients and rations because one ingredient is a good buy this week may affect production and cow performance. Focus on ingredients for which you can get a consistent supply, with a consistent nutrient analysis. Some ingredients are consistently better buys that others. Wet feeds are often good buys on a nutrient content basis but if you cannot feed enough to stay ahead of the spoilage, lost performance and/or discarded feed may negate any price advantage.
  4. Consider ration specifications. Now is a good time to review your ration specifications with your nutritionist. All nutritionists overbalance rations slightly to ensure that all cows are getting their nutrient requirements. Help your nutritionist to minimize the amount he/she uses to over-formulate to meet the cows needs. Most of these factors focus on ingredient consistency and animal specifications within a group. For the lactating herd one method of determining consistency of the feeding program and protein use efficiency is milk urea nitrogen (MUN) measurements. Most processors now measure MUN on a regular basis. The best MUN value will vary between herds depending on ingredients, but many producers achieve excellent production with MUN values between 8 and 12 mg/dl. Share your values with your nutritionist. Consistent MUN values mean a more consistent feeding program. Table 1 shows some of the factors that will affect ration formulation.

    Do not over-formulate with the hope of more milk production. If you have high days in milk or another factor affecting production, adjust the ration accordingly.

  5. Minimize feed waste. As feed costs increase, the cost of feed waste increases. Manage piles, bunkers, bags and other storage to minimize waste. Store hay under cover. Tarps and plastic are cheap compared to spoiled hay. Manage or redesign feed bunks to minimize feed waste. Minimize feed refusals. Many high producing herds have refusals of 2% or less.

Producers who focus on producing high quality forages and then managing those forages and purchased feed costs are consistently the most profitable. This is more than just buying the cheapest ingredients. Working with your nutritionist and focusing on the factors listed above will help you minimize feed costs while maximizing productivity.

Factors that affect ration formulation.
Factors that increase requirement for over-formulation

  • Higher milk price and lower feed costs
  • Higher variation in ingredients analysis
    (forages or purchased ingredients)
  • Wide variation in requirements in groups of animals
    (must balance for the highest requirement in the pen)
  • Poor feed management
    (mixing procedures, dry matter determination, careful
    weighing of ingredients)
  • Not knowing dry matter intake

Factors that decrease requirement of over-formulation

  • Low milk price and higher feed costs
  • Consistent ingredients
  • Consistent dry matter

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