The science behind building a ration that optimizes milk production and improves herd health is highly coveted. To formulate a performance-focused diet, nutritionists depend on quality feed ingredients as the basis for ration development. Due to the recent rise in costs of many feedstuffs and ingredients, consistent, quality feed ingredients are being replaced by cheaper, low-quality alternatives solely because of the price tag.
The current issue regarding feed ingredient quality has become more prevalent over the past six months, says Kevin Jones, founder of Ghost Hollow Consulting in Filer, Idaho. Due to high feed costs, reducing costs at any step in the ration formulation process can result in higher profits for producers today but can prove problematic shortly after making the change.
In the past, when feed prices were much lower and the issue of nutrient management was not at the forefront, nutritionists had the luxury of “overformulating” diets with more protein, minerals, etc. than specifically needed by the cow in order to compensate for the variability in commodity ingredients. For example, each load of soybean meal was slightly different in protein, so rations were formulated for a 17 percent protein diet instead of 16 percent, and there were no worries about shortchanging the cow. With commodity prices skyrocketing and more emphasis placed on nutrient management, you cannot afford variability in ingredients and overformulating diets for your herd.
For nutritionists, these problems are especially alarming because producers turn to them first when production problems arise. According to Dr. Bill Prokop, another nutritionist with Ghost Hollow Consulting, the extensive research that results in consistent quality makes high-end ingredients far more valuable over time. Although you may decrease ration costs with lower quality products, the negative impact on production and components, along with added herd health problems, far outweighs the initial investment in feeding quality ingredients.
Challenges of monitoring feed ingredient quality
The way feeds are handled on a dairy makes it difficult to monitor feed ingredient quality. Here are some current problems dairy producers and nutritionists experience when it comes to feed ingredient quality:
• Different loads every day.
Jones admits that loads delivered to the dairy can be from different mills from one day to the next, and producers and nutritionists often don’t even know the feed’s origin. This makes it exceptionally hard for nutritionists to accurately balance the ration accounting for nutrient quality.
• New feed tomorrow.
One of the biggest problems seen on larger dairies, according to Jones, is going through a whole load of feed ingredients in one day. By the time cows are dropping in production or experiencing health issues, the feed is already consumed, while the negative aftermath can last for weeks. Jones specifically recalls one instance when a 7,000-cow dairy lost $100,000 over a two-week period because of a big drop in fat production. The dairyman, with the help of consultants, traced the problem back to poor quality feed ingredients that lacked the nutrients necessary to maintain good component levels.
• Very little required information.
Feed ingredient suppliers are only required to guarantee the nutrition information for three nutrients: protein, fiber and fat. This makes it especially difficult to ascertain quality, says Mike VanderPol, who also works with Ghost Hollow Consulting. For example, if a product is added to the ration because it offers high starch levels, nutritionists may not know the quality, or the amount, of starch found in the product because the information is not required. If the ingredient is tested separately for starch levels, the reports don’t provide additional information about the profile or quality of the starches. This makes it especially important to work with feed suppliers that have done extensive research on their products, so nutritionists understand how they will impact milk production and animal health.
• Change without notification.
In many cases, feed ingredients and processes are changed without the dairy being notified. Jones says he’s experienced this with his clients more than once in the past few months.
He mentions two particular situations where a feed ingredient was switched for a lower quality one, once because of a change in the ingredients and the other because of a change in the mill’s procedures. In both cases, the producer was unaware of the changes that took place. He found out the change was made when production and component levels decreased drastically in a short period of time.
• Small change, large ramifications.
Variation is the enemy of the dairy cow, says Dr. Prokop. Small changes to the daily ration can have a major impact on animal health and productivity. He notes that as a nutritionist his job is to eliminate ration variation, which is accomplished by aligning their quality control with companies that focus closely on the same goal of providing consistently formulated, highest-quality ingredients to the dairy cow. Without this additional goal of consistency, small deviations can have a dramatic impact on herd performance and profitability.
Tips to conquering poor feed ingredient quality
Be proactive to ensure feed ingredient quality is measuring up to your standards. Here are some tips to help navigate through feed quality challenges.
• Feed reputable, research-proven products.
By feeding industry-trusted products, you’re not only guaranteed quality, but you know where to turn if problems arise. Dr. Prokop recommends using feed ingredients from brands you trust because the value in the product, along with consistent quality, is expected and delivered.
• Look for certifications.
Multiple feed certifications exist as a check-and-balance system to uphold and promote quality standards and provide peace of mind for producers and nutritionists. The Facility Certification Institute (FCI) audits feed manufacturers and ingredient suppliers participating in the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) Safe Feed/Safe Food quality program. The third-party certification helps ensure feed companies adhere to a number of good industry practices through random audits and strict manufacturing guidelines. Ask your mill if they distribute certified ingredients.
• Pay close attention to new feed.
On-farm feed managers should look for any major changes in color, smell or texture when a new load of feed is delivered. Have a feed quality standard operation procedure in place so feeders take the time to look at quality and changes from day to day. This can help ward off potential production and health nightmares.
• Build relationships with key suppliers.
Jarrod Kersey, director of ingredients and state legislative affairs with AFIA, notes the relationships dairy producers build with their suppliers is as important today as it ever was. Good suppliers, he says, understand the risks associated with poor-quality feed ingredients and how important their relationship with the producer can be for future business.
• Ask questions.
Suppliers know where their ingredients are coming from, and as a producer you have the right to ask where your feed is manufactured. Kersey notes that the relationship with and reputation of the feed ingredient supplier is of the utmost importance. Deal with suppliers who can ensure ingredients are high-quality, research-proven and safe.
• Test samples when possible.
Work with trusted forage-testing labs that can return sample results to you quickly. Even though entire loads of feed may be consumed each day, taking a sample once a month can be a quality control measure for you to ensure you’re getting exactly what is agreed upon. Having access to a reliable lab for complete feed analysis is essential to monitor consistency of feed ingredients and manage risk of variation inherent in certain ingredients.
• Have an insurance program in your ration.
Producers should be realistic about feed ingredients and their quality, says Jones. To deal with possible variations he recommends adding “insurance,” like mycotoxin binders, to rations so changes from day to day have minimal influence on current performance and rations stay as consistent as possible.
As feed ingredient quality, number of suppliers and prices continue to change, take the time to be your own advocate. Work with your nutritionist and suppliers to ensure you’re getting exactly what you pay for. Focus on quality, rather than price, to ensure your cows get just what they need for optimal production and health. PD
ARM & HAMMER Animal Nutrition
Elliot Block for Progressive Dairyman