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Improve profitability by monitoring feeders’ performance

Felix Soriano Published on 11 August 2010

Are the feeders you work with doing a good job? How accurate are they when loading those expensive mineral blends or supplements into the mixer? How is their bunk delivery accuracy?

These and others are some of the questions I ask herdsmen and managers when discussing feeding programs. Remember that feeders play a key role in the profitability of the dairy. Feed cost represents more than 50 percent of the cost of milk production. Therefore, the feeders’ work should be monitored periodically to ensure they are performing to your expectations.

There are different ways of evaluating a feeder’s performance. Some are more subjective and time-consuming than others. For example, one monitoring tool that can be used is a simple form sheet that your feeders fill out with ingredient loading and feeding information on a daily basis.

You can also use a computer spreadsheet if you are more technologically advanced, or you can use feeding management software, which many dairies now have. Independently of what tool you use, these are my top three things I always suggest monitoring on a daily basis in order to keep track of a feeder’s performance:

Loading accuracy
Knowing how accurately your feeders are loading each ingredient into the mixer is very important for two reasons. First, loading errors can compromise cow health and will affect milk production. Second, improving loading accuracy will lead to reduced feed cost for not overfeeding expensive ingredients. Remember that just an extra shake of the loader bucket can cost thousands of dollars more to the dairy. According to data from TMR Tracker, a feed management software program, the ingredients that are usually more variable during loading are dry hay, soybean meal, supplements and haylage. Use feeding management software to monitor each feeder’s loading accuracy daily, and evaluate which are the ingredients at your dairy that tend to be more inaccurately loaded. Establish a bonus program once the feeders achieve an expected standard performance to help improve this.

Feed delivery accuracy
Are the feeders at your dairy delivering the right amount of feed to each pen according to cow numbers and intakes? Many times one batch of feed is split into two pens, delivering half of the feed in one pen and half in the other. If one pen consistently gets underfed by 3% for example, because that feeder tends to drop more feed in the first pen, then this can affect milk production. How bad would it be? If that pen is averaging 90 pounds of milk that means that cows in that pen should be eating about 54 pounds of dry matter a day, which would be approximately 108 pounds as fed if there is 50 percent dry matter in the TMR. Feeding 3 percent less feed could reduce milk production by about 3 pounds a day.

On the other hand, the pen that was overfed will have more refusals which will probably end up being fed to heifers or low-producing cows. Therefore, the cost of feeding heifers or low-producing cows will be higher than what it should.

Feed refusals
In order to monitor this, it is important to weigh refusals. Typically I hear all kinds of excuses for not weighing refusals, the most common one being not having enough time. However, this will help better assess how well feeders are reading feedbunks and how consistent their work is. Why is this important? It’s all about controlling feed cost. If your current feed refusals are 5 percent and your feed cost is $5.50 per cow a day, then your feed losses will be almost $100,000 per year (for every 1,000 milking cows). In contrast, when running a more slick bunk management, by keeping feed refusals at 2 to 3 percent, feed losses would represent less than $40,000.

Furthermore, by monitoring feed refusals you and the nutritionist can better measure dry matter intake, feed efficiency, inventory control and shrink losses. All these will be useful to more accurately calculate the bottom line profitability of the dairy (by calculating income over feed cost (IOFC)).

These should be the three main key performance indicators (KPI) used to evaluate feeders’ performance at the dairy. However, there are a few steps that any dairy manager or herdsman should take before implementing these KPI. And those are:

1. Establish feeding SOPs (standard operating procedures)

2. Develop a training program for feeders

3. Give good and periodic feedback

Finally, work with your nutritionist or outside consultant to establish the parameters and expectations for your monitoring system. They can also help develop a training program for your feeders. EL

Felix Soriano, MS, PAS
  • Felix Soriano, MS, PAS

  • Nutritionist for APN Consulting, LLC
  • Email Felix Soriano, MS, PAS

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