Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0409 PD: Feeding challenges with today’s milk price

Mike Hutjens Published on 25 February 2009

With milk prices dropping and feed prices changing weekly, dairy managers are making key decisions that can be squeezing or reducing profit margins. While economical feeding programs can be a plus, making correct decisions will be important.

Three “golden rules”



RULE ONE: Never give up milk yield, as income will drop faster than expenses. One pound of ration dry matter can cost 9 to 11 cents. One pound of dry matter above maintenance can support two pounds more milk. Reducing one pound of dry matter saves 10 cents while losing 36 to 40 cents of milk income potential.

RULE TWO: Maintain milk components; milk protein is worth $3.40 a pound and milk fat is valued at $1.80 a pound. Low milk components can reflect incorrect feeding program changes, impaired rumen function, and lost milk income potential (Table 1).

RULE THREE: Guard against feed changes that can impact the dairy herd long-term (such as reduced fertility and herd health). While lost milk yield and/or components may respond in several weeks after getting the ration corrected, getting cows pregnant, getting lame cows to walk or reducing somatic cell counts can take months to an entire lactation to improve or lead to culling.

Feed decisions to consider

Lower levels of starch can be one area to review as new research reflects starch levels as low as 18 to 20 percent can maintain milk production. Feeding more high-quality forage to increase rumen fermentable fiber, feeding sources of sugar, and adding an ionophore can allow for lower starch levels. Plant or kernel processing of corn silage and processing corn grain can increase starch availability in the rumen and reduce fecal losses of starch.


Recent studies at Pennsylvania and Illinois suggest conducting a fecal starch analysis may be a useful tool to estimate apparent total starch digestibility. If fecal starch is over 5 to 6 percent, examine sources leading to reduced starch digestion (factors listed above). Collecting fecal samples from 5 to 10 cows, mixing, and sending to a commercial lab can cost $10 to $15 a sample.

2. Feed additives can increase feed costs, but feed additives can achieve benefit-to-cost ratios over 4-to-1 or higher (invest five cents and achieve 20 or more cents in added income or other economical traits such as somatic cell count or hoof health improvement, based on published research results).

Review your additive line-up to determine that conditions are optimal for a response on your farm.

The list below includes recommended feed additives and feed additives used based on the dairy farm situation (as-needed basis) for dairy cows.

Recommended additives

Rumen buffer


Yeast culture/yeast

Monensin (ionophores)

Silage inoculants


Organic trace minerals

As-needed additives

Propylene glycol

Rumen-protected niacin

Mycotoxin binders

Acid-based preservatives

Calcium propionate

Protected choline

Feed additives with solid research results are a good investment when the price of milk is $16 or $20 per hundredweight (cwt).

3. Forage inventory and access can be an economical tool allowing higher-quality forages to be fed to high-producing cows while heifers and dry cows can be fed lower- quality forage. Consider increasing corn silage levels in your ration as feed cost per cow per day may drop 15 to 30 cents as protein prices remain competitive. Evaluate the use of low lignin forages and forages high in NDFD (neutral detergent fiber digestibility).

4. Byproduct feeds can be an excellent nutritional and economic decision. Distillers grain and wet brewers grain can reduce protein costs. Corn gluten feed and wheat midds can maintain energy levels while reducing feed costs. Feed Val (University of Wisconsin) and Sesame (The Ohio State University) computer programs can provide economical comparisons (Table 2).

5. Managing and monitoring weighbacks can increase profitability. One guideline is to target 2 to 4 percent weighback per cow per day. If cows consume 50 pounds of dry matter, one to two pounds of dry matter are not consumed, costing 11 to 22 cents per day. Feeding to an empty bunk limits feed intake especially for younger and timid cows (violating golden rule number one). Fine-tuning feedbunk management may allow feeding to an empty bunk.

• Insure feed is available within one hour before leaving to be milked or the next feeding.

• Evaluate your last 10 percent of remaining feed for sorting (if the remaining feed differs from the original ration or TMR by more or less than 5 percent using the Penn State box, you are forcing cows to eat low-quality/low nutrient content feed).

Be sure fresh feed is available after each milking.

• Check feedbunk space to allow all cows to eat after returning from the parlor (more than 24 inches of feedbunk per cow).

• Calculate feed efficiency to determine if intakes are optimal.

• Monitor bodyweight to determine if cows are mobilizing body stores.

Managing weighbacks can also minimize feed costs if this strategy is used.

• Several guidelines to use weighbacks can be used depending on herd size, age and type of animals on the farm, bunk feed stability, and weather such as rain/snow or hot weather.

— Recommended weighback is 2 to 4 percent of total feed offered. The remaining feed can be fed to steers (first choice) and older heifers (12 to 20 months of age).

— Feeding over 4 percent weighback must be fed to lactating cows (too valuable and expensive). Feed higher weighbacks to low production group or reblend into the current group (must be stable and wholesome).

• Clean out feedbunks daily to avoid stale feed and deterioration. Ideally, removal of weighbacks after each feeding can enhance feed intake.

• Maintain a smooth bunk surface to avoid build up of bacteria, odors and/or mold.

• Adding an acid-based bunk extender additive can maintain feed freshness and intake.

• Read feedbunks each day to estimate weighback (#1 is 1 percent remaining, #2 is 2 percent remaining, #4 is 4 percent remaining).

• If cows are fed twice a day, offer 50 percent of target dry matter when topping off weighback; if cows are milked three times a day, top off weighbacks to achieve 35 percent of target intake.

• Calculate feed cost per hundredweight of milk, as weighbacks can increase costs.

6. Shifting from a one- group TMR to multiple TMRs may be an alternative to lower feed costs. Feeding a ration higher in forages to lower-producing cows can save 75 cents or more per day. But consider several related factors that may be a “wrong” decision.

• Low-producing cows may consume 4 to 6 pounds less dry matter which can reduce the estimated savings when priced at 9 cents a pound compared to 11 cents a pound of dry matter.

• High-producing cows may need more nutrients to replace lost bodyweight in late lactation.

• Heifers may need added nutrients to reach their mature weight.

Cows that are gaining excessive body condition will need to be moved to lower nutrient content rations especially if rBST is not allowed by the milk processing company or cooperative. Another economic consideration is if the one-group TMR contains expensive nutrient sources (such as inert fat, amino acids, added fat/oil, or high-quality protein sources) or additives needed for fresh and early lactation cows (such as niacin, protect choline, and fatty acids for reproduction enhancement).

Feed decisions to avoid

7. Reducing fat and oil can appear as an economical short-term decision. Removing roasted soybeans, fuzzy cottonseed, tallow, or inert fats may not lead to lower milk production for several months. But after four to six months, body condition score can drop, which may not be a problem until the next lactation when conception and fertility drops or cows cannot maintain peak milk production.

8. Cows “talk to us” every day including milk urea nitrogen (MUN), fecal scores, body condition scores, dry matter intake, metabolic disorders and milk performance. If you make a feeding change and the cow response is negative, it was a bad decision.

9. Pulling minerals, grain, additives, and protein from the growing heifer rations may seem minor, but long-term slowed growth, health problems and lower reproduction rates can result in older heifers and lower milk yield. Heifers represent a major future investment in your herd; do not slow the growth of these future herd replacements.

10. Ration balancing using a rumen model program is a must in most high-producing herds to achieve optimal levels of metabolizable protein, reach a 3:1 ratio of lysine to methionine with 6.6 percent lysine and 2.2 percent methionine, and adjusted energy levels based on feed intake and feed ingredients. Use a program that is user-friendly and provides the desired output.

11. Deciding not to use your nutritionist can be an economical mistake. While the consultant cost can be $3 to $5 a cow per month, the losses in performance, strategic feed purchases, feedbunk reading, independent cow condition scores, and a fresh set of eyes can be important. Your nutritionist is part of your management team that impacts over 50 percent of the cost to produce milk on your farm.

Feeding benchmarks

Feed efficiency compares the conversion of feed dry matter to milk. Calculate the pounds of 3.5 percent fat-corrected milk per pound of dry matter consumed (correct of weighback) to determine if your herd feed efficiency values are optimal.

• Entire herd: Over 1.5 (1.6 is an achievable goal)

• High group: Over 1.7

• High group of heifers: Over 1.5

• Low group: Over 1.3

• Fresh cow group: Under 1.5

Feed efficiency values over 1.8 to 1.9 can reflect weight loss (cows borrow from body stores to meet milk nutrient needs). Keys to higher feed efficiency are highly digestible rations (emphasis on forage quality), getting cows bred to reduce days open, and avoiding rumen acidosis. Each 0.1 percentage point increase (increasing from 1.4 to 1.5) can result in 37 cents higher income per day per cow.

Feed cost per pound of dry matter reflects the cost of feed ingredients selected when building and balancing the ration. One guideline is 9 to 11 cents per pound of dry matter. All feeds (including forages) should be charged at market price adjusted for nutrient content and dry matter.

Feed cost per hundredweight of milk reflects the cost per pound of dry matter, amount of dry matter offered including weighbacks, and milk yield. Milk yield is key in achieving a value under six dollars a day.

Income over feed costs represents margin (dollars available) for fixed, variable, labor and return to management. Milk price is a key factor in this value.

Calculating these values allows the dairy manager to identify opportunities or bottlenecks in the feed and management program. PD

Mike Hutjens

Dairy Extension Specialist

University of Illinois

Take-home messages

• When making feed changes, avoid any losses in milk production or milk components.

• Areas to review that can be economically viable alternatives include lower levels of starch, substitute byproduct feeds, review feed additives in your current ration, consider your current level of weighbacks and potential shrink and review grouping patterns.

• Aspects that could be economically wrong decisions include removing fat and oil sources, not using a rumen model to balance metabolizable and amino acid levels, pulling minerals or additives just to “save” money and eliminating ration balancing and building resources.

• Feeding benchmarks can provide areas to review and fine-tune.