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1009 PD: Keeping things balanced

John Hibma Published on 29 June 2009

Not too long ago the supply of canola meal into the Northeast U.S. was interrupted.

Those of us who work in the dairy ration-balancing business had to do some quick scrambling to find a satisfactory substitute for this popular plant byproduct. Intuition and experience quickly told me that I had no choice but to use soybean meal (SBM) because of its protein density. But SBM runs about 10 percentage points of crude protein higher than canola so I knew I didn’t need to use as much SBM to meet protein requirements in most of my feed rations. My question then became, “How much do I substitute and what other feedstuff(s) can I balance it with and how might it affect other aspects of the ration?”

This is just one of a myriad of questions that confronts nutritionists and dairy farmers as we balance dairy rations. With a host of different commodities, byproducts and forages to choose from, it can be a daunting task when trying to sort out which feedstuff is the best for a given application. For instance, some feedstuffs supply a lot of nitrogen to the rumen microbes while others do not. We’ve learned in recent years that not all proteins are the same because they all have different amino acid profiles. Feedstuffs with similar crude protein values don’t necessarily act the same way in the rumen.



Carbohydrates also have big differences. Cellulose, starch and sugars – all of which fall into the general category of carbohydrates – each has a different rate of degradation in the rumen. We need to take a close look at grains and byproducts with high energy values to see what contributes to that high energy. In some cases, such as corn, starch is the main energy source. In the case of whole cottonseed, it’s the fat that gives it the high energy level. Each of those feedstuffs must be handled differently when incorporating them into a ration.

Add vitamins and minerals, volatile feed pricing and multiple group rations and the task of balancing dairy diets can become overwhelming. That’s why we use computers.

Because many of a feedstuff’s characteristics can be quantified numerically and there are so many different metabolic aspects to consider when balancing a modern dairy’s feed rations, computers have become a nearly indispensable tool for the dairy industry. In techno-speak we call this process “modeling”.

Ration modeling took a huge step forward beginning in the 1980s when personal computers were developed and software – particularly the spreadsheet – was introduced. Suddenly all the calculations that were previously done by hand, sometimes requiring hours to derive, could be done in a matter of seconds. Through the 1990s and now into the 21st century, many universities and private companies have developed the code and algorithms and written software to accomplish the nearly impossible task of balancing the diet for milk cows and predicting how much milk they’ll produce while, at the same time, keeping prices as low as possible and not adversely impacting the environment.

No one has to tell a dairy farmer how important it has become to balance feed rations correctly. Efficiencies have become the name of the game in the past decade and will continue to be in years to come. We’re seeing just the beginning of what will probably be a long-term trend of low milk prices relative to the costs of production. Visionaries a couple of decades ago predicted that the long-term average price that a dairy farmer could expect for his milk would be about $13 per hundredweight with current pricing policies. Even with the tremendous variations in price and the unprecedented highs, the average seems to still suggest a price that will seldom see its way out of the “teens”.


We’ve recently had a taste of high prices due to emerging foreign markets but that, as we’ve seen, was short-lived. Even if the world’s economies do find their way out of the current slump, you can rest assured that Americans aren’t the only people in the world who can milk a cow and flood the planet with too much milk.

Competition for resources will increase and prices for those resources will also increase. As the world’s population continues to climb in numbers, arable land for farming will become scarce, as well. The need to put a very sharp pencil to the various costs of production on a dairy farm – particularly feed costs – will become ever more critical. As we’ve already seen, the profit on a dairy can, one year, be hundreds of dollars per cow in the black and the very next year be that many dollars in the red.

Nutrient management and the restrictions and regulations associated with it will also force you to balance feed rations more stringently. There are amino acid products now on the market that enable more efficient formulation of nitrogen usage in dairy diets, resulting in less nitrogen finding its way into our waterways and aquifers. This makes it possible to formulate rations with less total crude protein and still support rumen health and meet metabolizable protein requirements and high milk production. Just as we’re now being encouraged to reduce our carbon footprint, agriculture could eventually be required to reduce its nitrogen footprint.

Today we have the computerized sophistication to predict milk production, butterfat and protein down to the pound and gram. We can take nearly any feedstuff at any price and see if it will work in a ration. New laboratory techniques and analysis of feedstuffs continue to improve our ability to predict milk cow performance.

With profit margins so tenuous from one year to the next, it makes little or no sense to not have someone analyzing diets with one of the many amazingly accurate computer programs that are now available. The good-old-days when you could put a ration together on the back of an envelope and purchase a load of hay just by looking at it or smelling it are pretty well behind us. We live in a high-tech, more competitive world where allowing feed rations and feed prices to get out of balance and not staying ahead of costs will certainly turn costly. PD

John Hibma