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Put ingenuity and opportunity to work in 2011

Daniel Kohls and Carla Kuehn Published on 07 April 2011

Feeding cows

After surviving several months of high feed costs and stagnant milk prices, uncertainty still lingers over how all of us in the dairy industry will contend with 2011.



In our business and most others, periods of economic stress tend to breed new technologies and practices that further advance efficiency.

And between market peaks and valleys, there are often profit opportunities. A crystal ball would be useful as we look ahead to 2011. But planning and strategy are even better. The ability to adapt to short-term situations, while maintaining long-term business sense, can make the difference between surviving and thriving in unpredictable times. Paying attention to the details of the feeds you’re using, the diets you’re feeding and the products available can certainly make an impact on the desired end result. Here are some practices to consider:

Manage feeds and forages
When considering details that make a difference, the feeds and forages used in your operation are always the most important places to start.

Forages comprise the majority of your herd’s diet. As 2011 progresses, you can continue to reap the benefits of forage management and ensilage practices from 2010. If something didn’t work, find out why and prepare to make adjustments when this year’s forage harvest approaches.

Genetic selection of forage hybrids continues to be an important part of the feed decisions you need to make. Utilizing corn forage hybrids with maximum forage digestibility is still important as the foundation of the dairy diet.


Research continues on the different corn grains, their genetics and how their fermentation, processing and feeding can all affect starch utilization.

Feed testing laboratories continually offer new analyses for nutrients that better define the use of forages and feeds. Labs will continue to refine these tests and nutritionists will continue to apply this information into formulation software.

To help contain costs, do what the most successful operations do and establish commodity price risk-management strategies. These give you the ability to grab lower-priced commodities as they present themselves.

With market volatility, these “low-cost” items often have a very short window of opportunity. So the ability to react to, and deal with, unique storage or stockpiling situations is imperative.

Commodities need to be SMART: Safe to feed, Manageable for shelf life, Available on a consistent basis, Reasonably priced and Tested for nutrient content and molds/mycotoxins.

Balance diets with data
Ration balancing has moved past balancing for crude protein and net energy. It’s becoming more important to gather detailed information on nutrients – such as digestibility, rate of ruminal degradation and bioavailability – so you can balance diets for metabolizable protein and energy.


Utilizing this specific information on carbohydrate and protein fractions will be necessary to maximize microbial protein production, a key to lowering diet cost while maximizing milk production.

Continue to closely monitor the fatty acid profiles of feeds. The composition of the fatty acids of feeds consumed, in addition to those that reach the small intestine after they have gone through the rumen, can influence milk fat and reproduction.

Put beneficial bacteria to work
Utilization of feeds that maximize the efficiency of the rumen will be important in the future. Direct-fed microbials (DFMs) are natural feed additives used in calves, lactating cattle, or any animal in a stressful state. Feeding DFMs can increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the rumen to establish a desired microbial balance.

Fungal DFMs, such as live yeast or yeast extracts, can benefit those microbes that help digest fiber by utilizing lactic acid. This increases rumen pH to favorable conditions for the fiber-digesting microbes. Extracts of Aspergillus oryzae can improve fiber digestion by stimulating the growth of rumen fungi that help to break digestible fiber bound to the indigestible lignin.

Bacterial DFMs, such as certain strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus, are active in the lower gut and have little effect on rumen fermentation. Their function is to produce lactic acid, which lowers the pH in the small intestine and inhibits pathogenic microorganisms from being absorbed. Lactic acid bacteria may be beneficial to your transition cows as they undergo much stress and are prone to disease.

Deliver nutrients on target
Encapsulated products are ones that can efficiently deliver nutrients where needed. Administering nutrients in encapsulated form allows them to bypass rumen fermentation, diminish the rate at which they become available to the rumen, or enable a sensitive ingredient or nutrient to survive feed processing.

The encapsulation process involves applying a coating to a nutrient or substance that controls the interaction of the nutrients with the environment. Although the process can be expensive, encapsulation offers advantages in target-feeding nutrients.

Encapsulated vitamins are one example of protected nutrients. Feeding encapsulated vitamins minimizes their degradation in the rumen and enables delivery to the small intestine.

Depending on the vitamin fed, they may elicit responses in improved milk production or milk components, improved reproduction, improved foot health, less metabolic disease or more efficient growth in calves or heifers.

Balancing rations for the correct amount and ratio of amino acids will be important as herd production continues to increase. Encapsulation of methionine or lysine allows these amino acids to escape rumen degradation so they can be absorbed into the intestine.

Hydroxy-analog versions of methionine are also available. In these situations, the amino acid is not encapsulated, but rather a modified form is supplemented and this form will enter the bloodstream of the animal.

There is a vast array of nutrient products on the market. Look to products with sound data and experienced representation to predict the likelihood of the new technology producing a profitable result for your herd.

Have a comprehensive plan to beat heat stress
Even though hot summer days seem months away, now is the time to start protecting your herd against heat stress. Cow comfort, cow behavior and grouping issues exacerbate themselves when heat stress is added to the mix.

Lower milk production, poorer reproduction, elevated somatic cell count (SCC), increased lameness and increased cull rate can all be magnified by heat stress events – as they happen and long after the heat has passed. This makes a well-designed plan a high priority for every dairy.

Auditing your dairy for heat stress preparedness, and making appropriate changes, are highly profitable practices. Areas to review in your dairy should include, but are not limited to: water quality and availability, shade access, air quality, wind and ventilation, parlor and holding area cooling, evaporative cooling equipment such as sprinklers, fly control, nutrient balance and hydration therapy strategies.

Heat stress has a lingering effect on the dairy long after the hot days have passed. It’s especially evident in lameness, pregnancy rate and milk production recovery. Dollars invested in heat abatement and hydration therapy have an ever-increasing return on investment with today’s higher input costs.

Golden opportunities?
With high cull-cow prices and ample replacements available, many dairies are employing a “cull and replace quickly” strategy. This may be right for some dairies but wrong for others, since it can artificially inflate cull and herd turnover rates.

While this strategy may boost cash flow in the short term, there may also be a hidden cost to not fixing why cows are culled in the first place.

Tracking the reasons for culling these cows is very important. When cull and replacement market conditions stabilize, the dairy with good culling data will not only be younger, but also be able to immediately resume a sensible cull rate.

Operations that have not, for example, fixed an SCC or reproduction problem will be in the position of having an unsustainable herd turnover rate, which can be financially crippling.

The dairies best positioned to capitalize on seemingly “golden opportunities” during volatile markets are the ones with real metabolic and culling data, that know their real cost of production, understand market factors affecting the value of marginal milk and have an excellent relationship with their lender.

Stay current
One discipline that will help carry your operation through uncertain times is to continue observing and making changes to your management practices and feeding recommendations. Only by being observant can you capture the opportunities in today’s market.

As you learn to adjust to current markets and make adjustments for different seasonal or stress events, your operation will become more efficient for the future. You’ll continue to gain ground this year.

While the dairy industry seeks to find answers in the elusive crystal ball, we can all adapt and learn to improve for the future. PD

Dan Kohls is a field nutritionist at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies in Stewart, Minnesota. Dr. Carla Kuehn, who contributed nutrient and dietary data to this article, is a Ph.D. in Nutrition at Form-A-Feed and TechMix. For more information, call them at 800-422-3649 or send an email to

When considering details that make a difference, the feeds and forages used in your operation are always the most important places to start. Photo by PD staff.


Daniel Kohls
Form-A-Feed Inc.