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0809 PD: Optimize your feed and nutrition with these tips

Gary Asche Published on 18 May 2009

The economics and profit margins in today’s modern dairies are certainly tighter than in the past. Since feed is a large part of the cost of production, now’s the time to identify feed practices that will help you optimize your dairy’s nutritional program.

A good place to start is to focus on some of the small details that improve the conversion of feed to milk. For example, making sure a portion of the grain is finely ground can improve utilization without upsetting the rumen. Also, having enough soluble protein in a correct ratio to starch is important for optimum production of rumen microbial protein. Consider using additives such as yeast, microbials and ionophores that improve efficiency of the rumen and total digestive tract to produce milk.



Short-term savings, long-term problems
Some of the most important nutrients in the feed are vitamins and trace minerals because they support a wide variety of body functions. Enzyme co-factors are important for general metabolism, reproduction, immunity, antioxidants that protect cells from oxidative damage, and so on. Completely removing vitamins and trace minerals from your feed program will provide a short-term savings. But over the long term, their absence will cause many more costly problems that far exceed the meager cost savings.

The list of potential problems is long: reduced milk production, poor hoof quality, lameness, reproduction and fertility problems, reduced cow longevity, less effective vaccine performance and more. Indeed, many of these issues take significant time to correct. A better approach is to look critically at specific nutrients. Adjust the level of fortification if there is sufficient evidence that a lower level will not cause huge problems. One good example is phosphorus: Compared to the standard practice of 5-10 years ago, lower levels of phosphorus can be fed without impacting performance.

Putting research to work
There are some newer, yet proven, technologies that can help your cows consume a diet that’s been optimized for nutrient content and cost. One emerging technology is the use of a ration formulation system that accounts for the rate and extent of digestion in the rumen. The system then predicts the amounts of microbial protein being produced. Although you may need to input data on additional ingredients, the system can be very helpful in achieving cost-effective rations.

Also in recent years, there has been more research on which amino acids limit milk production. Lysine and methionine are considered the most limiting, depending on the type of forage. This is critical information for determining the effective use of rumen bypass or protected amino acids, and use of the most appropriate bypass proteins.

Dairy producers will use these new approaches more when they want either ration cost savings or improvements in milk production, or more efficient conversion of feed to milk. A side benefit to feeding bypass amino acids is that ration protein levels are commonly reduced, which can create more environmentally friendly manure containing less ammonia and/or nitrogen.


Of course, not all of the research-driven practices are new. Analyzing the fiber components in forages has been used extensively for many years. Estimating the digestibility of fiber fractions like neutral detergent fiber (NDF) can help determine the digestibility of forages overall. Specific lab tests are run in vitro, or in situ by putting forage samples in Dacron bags and placing them in a cow’s rumen through a fistula. In herds that have problems attaining high milk productions, these studies can help pinpoint low-quality, problem forages.

Getting the right mix
Many other factors can have a large impact on the success of your feed program. Paying attention to small, sometimes overlooked details as you prepare the feed can reward you with a quick pay-back.

First, make sure you’re properly mixing and delivering feed to the cows so that the ration you formulated on paper is close to what the cow actually consumes. Most nutrient allowances (and thus rations) are formulated on a dry matter basis so variations in dry matter content don’t affect total nutrient intake. For this to be valid, you need to frequently monitor the dry matter content of feedstuffs and forages to ensure that the rations fed provide the correct nutrients. Large changes in the nutrients received by cows can be caused by small (2 to 5 percent) variations in the dry matter content of forages, which comprise 40 to 60 percent of the diet.

Adequate mixing is also critical – there is a proper order and sequence of ingredients. Over-mixing can cause two problems: Particle size can be reduced too much, which reduces the effective fiber in forages; and mixing beyond the proper time can cause the ration to “un-mix” and become less uniform. Each mixer manufacturer recommends a mixing time which should produce a uniform mixture after all ingredients are added. The time needed to add the forages and feeds can be much longer than the optimum mixing time. Installing and using a timer with a buzzer can be helpful.

Over-filling a mixer is another common mistake which causes non-uniform mixes and feed waste. When using a mixer that also grinds hay, monitor the condition of blades or knives and sharpen (or replace) when they’re dull. Here’s a good way to check mixer uniformity: Sample the ration TMR from the beginning, middle and end of the feedbunk, then do a shaker box test looking at the amounts of feed in the top, middle and bottom pans. The amounts should be consistent across the length of the bunk.

And finally, pay attention to shrink. If you’re adding feed to a portable mixer outside on a windy day, a significant amount of ingredients can blow away. Many of the fine-particle ingredients are also the most expensive, such as minerals, vitamins, and drug additives.


By focusing on the details of your feed practices – what you put into the ration, and how you prepare and deliver it – you can optimize both the nutritional value of your feed and its healthy impact on your balance sheet. PD

Dr. Gary Asche, Ph.D., is a nutritionist at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies, headquartered in Stewart, Minnesota. Gary Asche Nutritionist TechMix (800) 422-3649