Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

1208 PD: Strategies for coping with soaring feed costs

Kevin Murphy Published on 15 August 2008

Key points
- When evaluating cost-effective feed ingredients remember we are feeding two animals; first the rumen bugs and then the cow.

Rumen-efficient use of starch, sugars and fiber to make volatile fatty acids (VFA’s) that supply up to 85 percent of the cow’s energy.



Cow-post ruminal energy to help achieve top production and maintain health and reproduction.

- When feed prices are high look for good buys but don’t create problems with rumen fermentation or the cow’s basic requirements.

- Manage the basics of feeding on the farm. Formulation, mixing and delivery can make or break the feed you are buying.

- Know what you are delivering to the cows. Small changes in forage dry matter can unbalance a ration and cause you to feed more grain than you want to.

- Keeping cows in top productive form and getting them pregnant helps maximize your profitability.


Feed prices continue to chart unknown territory and our first reaction is to find something cheaper to help keep milk production up and get energy into our cows. Our cheap corn has broken $12 a bushel and the rush is on to get energy into the cows in a cheaper way. In general, corn supplies starch that rumen bugs can use as energy to produce volatile fatty acids (VFA’s) that the cow uses for energy and to produce microbial protein, which the cow digests and uses to make milk protein. Some starch may bypass the rumen and also be used for energy directly by the cow.

Dairy production, in general, utilizes feed stocks that are “byproducts.” These can be from other food processes, excess production (corn) or high-fiber products that humans can’t digest. Every time prices go high we are reminded that we are last in line for feed stocks. As Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois Animal Scientist puts it, “There are three main uses for corn, and dairy producers are number three in line.”

So what are the options for high-priced corn? Each choice needs to be weighed individually to see if it fits your overall ration and management abilities.

A variety of dairy industry supporters point to breaking down the components that you are feeding corn for and checking to see if there is a better buy. Software such as Feedval, University of Wisconsin, Howard and Shaver, and Sesame III (The Ohio State University, St. Pierre), take into account energy and protein and some fiber components to give a shadow value to help find good cost deals.

It’s important to remember to look at the big picture when a substitution is made. The rumen uses sugars, starch and fiber to make VFA’s and microbial protein that the cow in turn utilizes for her energy and milk production. Rumen fermentation is a delicate balance and just substituting a sugar source, which is rapidly fermentable for corn (more slowly fermentable starch source), can cause upset. Similarly, adding a fiber source (slower fermentation and less energy availability) can cause overall VFA energy production by the rumen bugs to be lower. In many cases, prices for other ingredients are based on corn, so for top production corn is still the most cost-effective choice.

The real key to maintaining profitability when feed prices are high is to do a good job of sourcing ingredients and then look beyond the direct cost of ingredients and manage areas that you control. What are those areas?


1. Formulation

2. Mixing

3. Delivery

4. Digestion (or making it easier for the cow to digest her feed)

In essence, many dairies let manageable areas lag when feed prices are low. The same pound of feed that only cost $.05 last year may now cost $.10, which makes it imperative to watch every function on the dairy.

What is formulation?
The initial formulation may be done by the nutritionist or feed company but the one that really counts is what is put into the feed wagon. Make sure your employees know the effect of changes in dry matter of forages on the overall ration. The higher the moisture in a feed, the less dry matter per pound in the mixer wagon. Figure 1 shows how a relatively small change in forage dry matter can affect the total dry matter delivered to the cow and how it affects the percent grain in the ration. If these changes in dry matter are not taken into account, the cows may actually consume less feed or more total grain may be delivered during the day, both unbalancing the ration and wasting high-priced grain. If employees understand how important ration dry matter delivery is, they will take the time to do the extra moisture test to help feed the same dry matter pounds to the cows every feeding. The best computer formulation means nothing if the actual feed isn’t put into the mixer wagon.

Just as important is the way ingredients are added to the mixer and distributed in the total mixed ration. If the feed is undermixed or overmixed, the cow may end up with a completely different ration than was intended. Again, help employees understand how important their job is. Doing mixer clinics by mixing feeds and putting them on the ground to show differences in mixing can help them actually see what it’s really supposed to look like.

The next item that is manageable is delivery. A consistent product delivered so the cows can reach it is extremely important. Equally important is making sure the feed is where the cows are. Make sure fresh feed is available as soon as the cows return from the parlor and it is where they will eat it. Teach employees to watch where cows eat and learn to manage feed delivery to put the feed where they will have easy access.

Case in point: During hot times of the year cows sometimes will eat more at one end of a manger than the other because it is more comfortable. Deliver more feed to the end where they are eating it so they don’t run out. In extreme circumstances, cows won’t clean up feed and this can reduce overall intakes by 2 to 3 pounds per day and hence reduce milk by that much or more.

How do you control digestion? The main manageable part of digestion is allowing the cow to eat the feed and making it comfortable to lay down and digest it. Studies have shown that a cow needs to lay down 12 hours per day in order to adequately ruminate and help maintain high production and health levels. This starts with time in the holding pen, time spent walking between the parlor and pen, having fresh feed and plenty of fresh water available when and where she wants it and having a comfortable place to lie down with adequate airflow to help with cooling during hot weather.

Remember the ABC’s for cows;

-Always have fresh feed and water available

-Bored bugs; keep the ration consistent by managing dry matter and ingredients

-Comfortable cows. Cows will always be where it is most comfortable; if that’s in the alley lying down you need to check the freestalls to find out what is making them uncomfortable.

When you are feeding a dairy cow, you are feeding two animals; the rumen bugs that digest the starch and fiber to make VFA’s and protein for the cow and the cow. As feed prices have increased, maintaining optimal rumen fermentation is extremely important in order to utilize as much of relatively cheap feedstuffs as possible before adding more expensive ingredients. Once you maximize rumen fermentation, it can be economical to add extra energy as inert fatty acids to help increase production and positively affect reproduction and health.

Early studies conducted utilizing rumen-inert fatty acids focused on the production increases and ignored the efficiency gains when they are supplemented. As feed prices have increased the actual gain in production efficiency from these added energy sources becomes more significant. Studies show that cows supplemented with a pound of rumen-inert fat increased milk production by 5 pounds a day with a higher milk-to-feed conversion. This is a very cost-effective and profitable way to increase energy.

Recent research has shown promising results when supplementing Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids to dairy cows. In effect, beyond just the energy value derived from the fatty acids, modifying the Omega-6-to-Omega-3 fatty acid ratio (omega 6:omega 3) that is delivered to the small intestine increases milk production and dry matter intake in early lactation and positively affects reproduction and health in lactating cows. Much of this effect is mediated by increased early embryonic survival. As the use of ultrasound to detect pregnancy earlier in cows has been adopted, we have discovered that embryo mortality is a significant problem. The Omega-3 fatty acids in these calcium salts help protect against loss, and hence you end up with more pregnant cows (Figure 4).

One way to combat high feed costs is to make sure that each cow is as productive as possible. The more days of her total lifetime that a cow spends in her first 100 days of lactation, the more productive she is. In order to do this, she needs to be pregnant as soon after the voluntary waiting period as possible so that she can return to the front of the lactation curve. Figure 2 shows the bulk tank averages from herds with different calving intervals. As you see, the biggest drop in bulk tank average comes when calving interval goes beyond 13 months. This is due to the drop of the lactation curve (Figure 3). High feed prices make growing heifers even more expensive, so managing cull rate by getting cows pregnant is a great way to maximize return to the dairy.

Another key to profitability is making sure to maximize peak milk in early lactation. Figure 3 shows that each one pound increase in peak milk increases total lactation yield by 250 pounds. As we search for good deals during high feed prices, we need to make sure that we aren’t shorting the cows in early lactation, as that can cause her to be less efficient over the entire lactation.

When substituting other energy sources for corn make sure you take into consideration all the effects utilizing unfamiliar feed stocks will have on the cow including formulation, mixing, delivery and digestion.

Remember the ABC’s. Always have fresh feed in front of the cow. Keep the rumen bugs bored by providing a consistent ration. The cow needs to be comfortable to stay in top productive shape.

High feed costs make seemingly small issues, such as testing for forage dry matter, even more profitable to manage.

Utilizing key essential Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids can help improve cow productivity beyond just energy. PD

Kevin Murphy
Virtus NutritionLLC
Technical Manager