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5 ways your operation can manage shrink during the winter

Amy Schutte for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 November 2019

The harvest has come and gone, taking much of the opportunity to prevent shrink in your feed storage, but these winter shrink tips from three nutritionists across the U.S. can help your operation save money and protect your herd’s health no matter what kind of weather winter throws your way.

Protect your face

Your silage or commodity feed storage is critical during the winter months when weather threatens to unravel all the hard work of harvest and storage. Check your commodity feed bins often to make sure there aren’t leaks or exposure, and ensure your feeders aren’t pulling tarps back too far or exposing more than they need to.

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While trends across the country vary when it comes to defacing a bunk, producers should keep in mind that exposed surface areas add to shrink, especially when more than one layer is open to the elements.

“I always suggest thinking ahead and defacing less than normal so we don’t lose more than we need to,” said Ramon Pacheco, Texas-based Standard Nutrition dairy consultant.

Keep your bunks clean

While it’s tempting to move through feed that’s spoiled, it’s recommended to refrain from feeding fresh and high cows feeds that increase refusals, such as moldy hay or fermented feeds high in butyric acid.

“Be aggressive with pushouts, and keep your bunks clean, which will also reduce your refusals,” said nutritionist Josh Peters, located in central Washington. “Start over if you get a significant rain or snowstorm. There are already environmental problems in the winter; we don’t need to add more issues with moldy hay or bad forage. If you’re proactive, there is less waste at the end of the winter.”

Peters said he inspects feed by hand and if it’s hot and slimy, it’s time to push it out.

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“We need to keep cows on feed to maintain health and production, and sometimes it requires getting out with a flathead shovel if the bunks get bad enough,” he said.

Monitor dry matter 

Winter conditions and multiple weather variables can cause havoc on feed, especially dry matter. Nutritionists urge farms to adjust for moisture in the rations, and carefully monitor shortages on intakes so your herd isn’t receiving too much water and not enough dry matter.

“Adjust for all the moisture when you feed,” Pacheco said. “The moisture affects silage and forage, which will create an imbalance of effective fiber in the rations.”

He urges dairies to monitor the dry matter daily instead of weekly, especially during periods of inclement weather.

“If we don’t adjust the dry matters, they’ll run out of feed and that will create a sort of ‘slug’ feeding situation which causes digestive upsets,” he said.

Idaho-based Standard Nutrition consultant Mike Brady suggests purchasing a moisture tester, which runs around $300 and takes 45 minutes to an hour to run a sample. Analysis allows you to understand what’s going on in your feed and create a better plan with what to do with it.

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“It is well worth the monetary and time commitment when you can realize your dry matter content in ensiled feeds,” Brady said. “Adjusting for changes in dry matter (DM) can end up saving you more than the cost of the moisture tested in a single feeding.”

Keep track of inventory with a feed program

It’s well-known cows don’t like variation in their diet, so keeping a finger on the pulse of your inventory allows for better conversations with your nutritionist if feed runs low or spoilage is high.

Brady said the return on investment for a feed program can happen in less than a month once producers start to monitor their inventory and ingredient usages.

“When a dairy gets a load of commodity ingredients, the feed program can keep track of quantity you have and what your cost per ton is,” Peters said. “These same programs allow the producer to run usage reports so they can accurately gauge parameters like daily, weekly and monthly usages, or feeder errors or deviations. These can be very helpful when trying to set up a restocking schedule for their inventories based on usage and shrink. It saves money and headache.”

When a producer is caught off guard by low inventory, it can be hard to make a plan or cope with the ration needs, so whatever you use to keep track of your feed, make sure your system is working well for you.

Maintain your equipment and storage

One of the best things you can do to prevent shrink is to make sure your equipment and feed storage are working properly. Sharpen knives regularly so you can have uniform total mixed ration (TMR) and perform routine scale audits to ensure the scale on the wagon is the same as the amount being fed out.

Rain can show you where commodity areas are not well-designed, so keep track of what needs attention for the following year. Holes in the roof and cracked walls can cause spoilage quickly.

If your storage isn’t working well for you, consider alternative housing to keep premixes and feed from blowing away. Brady suggests creating makeshift commodity bays with cement blocks and rails or hay bales.

“Many dairies don’t have enough commodity space to keep their dry ingredients housed. Creating a temporary windbreaker or commodity shed allows a dairy to retain high-value, but easily dispersible ingredients,” he said. “Idaho has strong winds that can easily blow away minerals and premixes, costing dairies anywhere from $250 to $600 a ton.”

Bonus: Prepare for next year

Storing feed is an art and a science. Taking note of what went well and what could be improved each year allows you to be better prepared for the following year.

Another fall money saver – invest in packers.

“When crops are ready to harvest, whether a dairy owns the equipment or is hiring a custom harvester, we’re never short on chopper and trucks, but often there aren’t enough packers for big pits,” Peters said. “This is a large loss, but often the dairyman can’t see it. It takes the feed longer to ferment, so there is dry matter loss there which has a big effect later on.”

The best thing you can do is prevent shrink in the fall and then plan for weather in the winter to keep ahead of variables, not just for your herd’s health but for your bottom line.  end mark

PHOTO: Concrete or hay bales can create makeshift, inexpensive commodity areas to reduce shrink. Photo provided by Amy Schutte.

Amy Schutte is a freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Email Amy Schutte.

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