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6 tips to improve feeding accuracy

Contributed by Noelia Silva Del Rio Published on 25 October 2017
tractor and mixer

Feed is the single largest cost on a dairy. So why, then, do we settle for such low levels of accuracy when loading feed ingredients into the TMR mixer?

In a study of 26 California dairies using FeedWatch 7 feed management software, we found deviation from target weight on individual ingredients ranged from 78.7 percent to 21.9 percent. The one-year study, which examined high-cow and high-cow-premix rations, also showed the precision or accuracy with which an ingredient was loaded varied by ingredient. Alfalfa hay, corn silage and canola were the ingredients most often loaded with poor precision and limited accuracy.

But rolled corn and almond hulls were consistently loaded with a high level of precision and accuracy. There also was a difference among feeders. Five dairies had feeders that loaded ingredients with great precision and adequate accuracy, while three dairies had feeders that loaded ingredients with very poor precision and accuracy. These results show ingredients can be loaded accurately.

Following are six ways to improve feeding accuracy on your dairy.

1. Set goals

Set achievable goals for feeding accuracy and share with your feeder. Remember, feeders are loading pounds. Dairies with large mixers may appear to have small loading errors when measured as a percentage, but when measured in pounds, the errors are large. Review feed management software reports with feeders so they understand what is being done right and what areas may need improvement.

2. Re-evaluate the use of tolerance level

In our study, the use of tolerance level allowed a deviation from target of more than 2 percent in 46 percent of the ingredients. In four dairies, 75 percent of the ingredient loads were below target weight. On those dairies, feeders were using the load weight as defined by the tolerance level as the target weight instead of the actual target weight. Use of tolerance levels for ingredients should be reevaluated and limited.

3. Communication

Managers and nutritionists often limit communication with feeders to negative feedback. Feeders get reprimanded for loading expensive ingredients over the target weight. However, this message has led some feeders to mistakenly conclude that on expensive items they should always err on the side of less than target weight. One of the feeders in the study loaded expensive ingredients accurately whereas inexpensive ingredients such as forages were often loaded significantly above target weight. Loading errors may result in a TMR with a nutrient composition different from the formulated one.

That’s why communication with feeders should include what is being done properly, goals and suggestions for improvement.

4. Listen to your feeder

Take time to listen to your feeders; they have good ideas. After you share feed management software reports, ask questions. For example, why do they think corn silage is consistently overfed? Did they run out of an ingredient and didn’t know what to substitute so total load weight is short? Are there too many rations to mix and not enough time in their shift so they hurry? Are some ingredients located too far away from the feeding center and taking back leftovers would be “too time-consuming”? Is there a problem or limitation with the equipment? It could be that training or practice is needed. Remember, loading ingredients precisely is a learned skill.

5. Consider premix

When formulating rations, be cognizant of the physical requirements to create that ration daily. For example, how many times does the feeder leave the tractor cab to load bagged ingredients? Are ingredients being loaded in the right order? At one dairy, I observed a feeder loading a bagged ingredient first instead of fourth as the ration specified. This change compromises mixing uniformity. Adding small ingredients and bagged ingredients into a premix can help improve loading accuracy and mixing uniformity.

6. Check the mixer scale

Loading accuracy requires the scale of the mixer box is properly calibrated. On dairies with an on-farm scale, this can be easily accomplished; otherwise, the mixer box scale can be calibrated by hanging bags of known weight on each corner above the weigh cells. It is difficult to accurately load ingredients when the scale number bounces up and down. To minimize, make sure the mixer is parked on a flat surface. Then, check how much bouncing takes place, specifically while hay is being chopped. The extra work of chopping hay could increase scale bounce.

Loading ingredients with minimal error can be done. Five dairies in this study demonstrated a very high level of precision and accuracy. The feeders at one of the dairies I visited told me about a little competition they had to earn “bragging rights” for the most accurate loads. And each had the opportunity to earn a small bonus for a predetermined level of accuracy. Take some time to think about what you can do to set feeders up for success.  end mark

—Excerpts from Dairy Nutrition Plus Nutrition Plus Newsletter, Vol. 2, Issue 6, November 2016

PHOTO: Talk with your feeder often to ensure they are following the correct diet formulation set by you and your nutritionist. Photo by Rúbia Lopes.

Noelia Silva del Rio
  • Noelia Silva del Rio

  • Dairy Extension Specialist
  • Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center
  • University of California – Davis
  • Email Noelia Silva del Rio

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