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Evaluating ration combinations: A constant challenge

Steve Blezinger for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 September 2019
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What is the best ration to feed to your dairy cows? An excellent question and one that has confounded dairy producers forever. We tend to focus largely on what is fed to the lactating herd since this is the main revenue source.

For producers and those advising, developing or formulating the rations and diets for the milking herd and other groups, deciding what is the best ration to feed at any given point in time can be a difficult decision. We use computer models, lab analyses of forages and ingredients, production records, benchmarking systems and hopefully the cows themselves to provide useful, effective answers.

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Every farm and their advisers have their own means of developing the feeding program and evaluating the effectiveness of that program. This article will explore the challenges of evaluating how well a given ration or diet meets the needs of the animal it is designed for and how well that animal responds. Finally, and this is the bottom line: How profitable is this ration for the farm both in the near and long term?

We feed multiple production groups on any dairy. On some farms, the number of groups can be significant. On others, the number is relatively small. No matter how it is done, each feeding program has to be well designed initially and result in the best performance possible for the group to which it is fed. Different groups have different indicators of “success.” For lactating cows, regardless of group (fresh, high-production, medium-production, low-production), the results are generally measured by measurements of performance including pounds of production, percent or pounds of fat, percent or pounds of protein, etc.

However, at the same time, we also have to consider how well these animals are breeding back, how healthy they are, what their levels of mastitis or other indicators of infection are and how healthy their feet/hooves are. Finally, we have to evaluate the feeding program long term, its effect on breeding and health and, overall, the ability to retain cows in the herd (minimizing cull rates). At the end of the day, these are all effectors of farm profitability, some immediate, some longer term.

Subsequently, we have to evaluate the feeding of calves, developing heifers, bred heifers, far-off and close-up dry cows. Some farms feed some or all of their bull calves (steers) for dairy-beef. Every one of these groups have an optimal level of production both immediately as well as how current feeding affects the animal’s ability to perform at the next stage of production.

One very important consideration to keep in mind is the role herd and animal genetics play in this process. Ration evaluations have to be weighed against the genetic base or profile of a given herd. It is important over time to develop an understanding of what types of feeding dynamics the herd’s genetic base will respond to. There can be variations in response to different nutrients or nutrient combinations.

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Ration evaluation means different things to different farms. But it all boils down to economics: costs, returns and profits/losses, short and long term.

Extensive ration evaluations can be complex when all the issues above are considered.

Keep the following in mind:

1. Understand that your rations are a moving target. In previous articles, we discussed variations in ingredients, forages, environment, labor and the herd itself. A focus on consistency and anticipating variability is an important component.

2. Regular dry matter and forage testing is an important part of a focus on consistency.

3. Establishing ration parameters that work within the farm’s genetic base is important. Work with an experienced, qualified nutritionist who can help establish these guidelines and monitor them. Discuss which formulation model he or she uses and why they use that particular platform. Then discuss how they track and evaluate animal performance.

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4. Become familiar with and consider use of software such as DairyComp 305 or similar platforms that can help you gather, organize and evaluate the huge amounts of data generated every day on the farm. Remember that effective use of these programs require dedication.

5. Recognize that it’s not always about the rations/diets. Having rocket fuel in the mixer and bunk is not of great value if the herd does not respond.

6. Work with an experienced, qualified accountant and financial adviser who can help with the economic evaluations.

7. Feed efficiency is the baseline. However, this includes both milk per feed (dry matter basis) but also cost of production (dollars per pound of milk) or income over feed cost. All of these are benchmarking tools that should be monitored to determine where production and returns are at any given point in time as well as how this compares to the past.

8. Recognize the cheapest ration is not the best, but neither is the most expensive. In some cases, it makes sense to give up some production to help reduce cost. In other words, a given ration may result in 85-pound daily production averages, but your returns may be better at 80 pounds of production. In other cases, you may have to spend a bit more money to improve the ration to stimulate improved production. Look for opportunities to improve returns on investment.

9. Have a good understanding of what affects your final milk price. Component-based markets which use pricing formulas can be confusing.

10. Remember that what you are feeding today may have long-term implications on reproduction, hoof health, general health, cull rates, etc. Non-production-related expenses can be substantial and a major cost to the farm in both the short and long term.

11. Given recent milk prices and economics, many dairies have spent extended periods of time in survival mode. These periods make ration evaluation particularly important.

There are no hard, fast rules for evaluating rations, largely because the process can be so complex. Developing a system that works for your farm and your team is the single-most important factor.

At the end of the day, you want to be assured you are getting the best production for your money spent (return on investment), but you also want to be assured the overall dairy is performing optimally as well: Cows are breeding, cows are healthy, and cull rates are low.  end mark

IMAGE: Getty Images.

Steve Blezinger
  • Steve Blezinger

  • Nutritional and Management Consultant
  • Reveille Livestock Concepts
  • Email Steve Blezinger

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