Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Maintain dairy cow performance with lower-quality feeds

Elliot Block Published on 11 February 2013
feed truck dairy

The full impact of the 2012 drought continues to be calculated and reports of hay and forage shortages persist. Forages that are available are generally expensive.

Not surprisingly, dairy producers are concerned about feed cost, quality and availability – and with good reason.



However, if milk and component prices remain at adequate levels, there should be little negative impact on profitability.

One reason for high feed prices is the fact that corn supplies remain tight. According to the November USDA Feed Outlook report, total U.S. corn supplies for 2012-2013 remain at a nine-year low and the report says that these tight corn supplies due to the drought are expected to result in record-high prices, which will impact demand.

Corn use is projected 17 million bushels higher with increases in food, seed and industrial use. Even though ending stocks are forecast up 28 million bushels from the October report to 647 million bushels, this is still the lowest level since 1995-1996.

In addition, this year’s corn silage crop is plagued by quality issues in a number of areas around the country. These complications – including higher-than-usual nitrate and mycotoxin levels – can negatively affect cow health and performance, so nutritionists and producers need to be mindful of and compensate for their presence.

Other nutritional challenges include:


• Hay availability is spotty, as are prices. The national average for alfalfa hay was $212 per ton in October. But it was $230 per ton in Kansas, $209 per ton in California and $191 per ton in New York – all of which are higher than 2011 prices and significantly higher than alfalfa hay prices in 2010, when the national average was $118 per ton.

• Some commonly used grain or byproduct commodity prices have jumped dramatically, too. For example, soybean meal increased from $301.45 per ton in October 2011 to $488.46 per ton in October 2012.2

Keep nutrition top-of-mind

This scenario means dairy nutritionists and producers will need to be at the top of their game when it comes to feeding the 2012 crop and utilizing alternative feedstuffs and ingredients.

Regardless of feed sources, quality and availability, it is critical to maintain production to generate optimal income. The key is to never sacrifice milk production or milk components when making ration changes.

It will be important to balance diets with accurate inputs to get the most out of your ingredients, diets and cows. Producers and nutritionists are facing especially challenging times in the coming months, which means it will be critical to deliver energy, protein and fiber from consistent sources.

Develop your strategy

To determine your current ration situation, evaluate your forage and feeding management practices to identify areas where additional focus is needed. Keep the following recommendations top-of-mind as you consider ration changes and reformulation:


  • Revisit the potential of precision feeding. Focus on grouping cows by production level and balancing rations that avoid overfeeding or underfeeding nutrients and optimize income over feed cost (IOFC).
  • Monitor feeding management. Data presented at the 2012 American Dairy Science Association’s joint annual meeting this summer showed that the variation between the ration formulated on paper and the fed ration was considerable on several California dairies surveyed.

Overall, ration fat and calcium were the nutrients that deviated the most between the formulated and fed rations in the study.

  • Test all forages. Knowing the nutrient content of feed ingredients is imperative this year since values will vary greatly due to weather conditions during the growing season.

Forage testing is going to be an insurance program this year, especially as it relates to molds and mycotoxins. Once forages are tested using wet chemistry analysis, identify which feeds should be included in each diet for maximum production.

  • Sort forages by quality. If possible, segregate higher-quality forages from lower-quality forages and let your nutritionist know about these inventories. That way you can strategically feed forages to specific groups of cows to reap the greatest reward per pound of feed.
  • Keep rumen health a top priority. A healthy rumen environment, regardless of ration changes, is critical for consistent performance. Focus on rumen pH and maintaining a neutral environment to allow rumen microbes to thrive.

Feeding rumen buffers can ensure the rumen environment is maintained in the midst of ration changes. Also be sure to deliver the right protein building blocks so that rumen microbes can remain healthy, can further break down feed and utilize nutrients to their fullest potential.

Use proven ingredients when forages won’t suffice. While forages provide a cost-effective nutrient source, supplements can be fed to meet nutritional needs and provide a greater return. Feed proven fat sources to deliver the energy cows need to maximize production.

When purchasing ingredients, ask if the ingredients are from AFIA safe feed/safe food certified facilities, which means they meet the highest level of quality in the feed industry. For more information, click here .

Your nutritionist can be a huge asset in helping you manage IOFC and formulate diets that maintain animal health, milk production and reproductive performance. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Photo by PD staff.

Elliot Block
  • Elliot Block

  • Senior Manager of Technology
  • Arm & hammer Animal nutrition
  • Email Elliot Block