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Maximize your nutrition investment

Dave Lahr Published on 21 September 2009
It’s always good business to look for a maximum return on investment (ROI) from the use of capital, labor and materials – especially in a tight economy.

So let’s take a closer look at six areas where we can improve the efficient use of nutrients in our dairy operations.

We’ll focus on lactating cows, but the same principles apply to calves, heifers and dry cows.



Forages are the largest component of dairy rations and a major cost, but are often loosely managed. To maximize forage efficiency, start with quality.

Costly harvest and storage losses often occur in dry or ensiled forages. Harvest timing, moisture, cut length, inoculant application, packing and covering are essential to making a supply of quality ensiled forage.

Maximize the nutrients and minimize the shrink. If a cow consumes 4.5 tons of forage dry matter annually, valued at $150 per ton, a management change that reduces shrink 10 percent saves $6,750 annually per 100 cows.

Feeding poorly stored forages may cost even more. Kansas State University research shows a 5 to 10 percent decrease in nutrient digestibility and partial destruction of the rumen forage mat when 25 percent spoiled forages were fed.

Maximize the value of good feeds by discarding spoiled forages. Monitor the moisture of wet feeds at least weekly and adjust batches accordingly. Check moisture more frequently with high feedout rates, rain-exposed feeds, or when there is a noticeable change in feedstuffs or total ration intake.


Ingredients and commodities
It’s tempting to jump on a broker’s “good buy” offer. But before making the deal, take the following steps:

1. Consult with your nutritionist to determine if the product provides a good value for nutrients you need.
2. Determine if the product is available in consistent supply and quality.
3. Evaluate the transportation, storage and handling implications. Does your dairy have a suitable place to store it? Can you use it fast enough to prevent spoilage loss?

Work with trusted ingredient suppliers, and get nutritional profiles in writing. An example is clients who were “stuck” with loads of ingredients that were not at all what they were represented to be on the phone.

In one case, a byproduct with NEL of 0.80 was promoted as a replacement for high-priced corn, but its energy value was really only 0.08 Mcal/lb. A $3,000 lesson was learned.

Ration balancing
The problem of averages and variation is a critical part of balancing rations. You can measure the average dry matter intake of a group of cows, their average production and estimate or measure the average nutrient content of the diet you formulate for them.

The challenge is to meet the needs of higher producers while not wasting expensive rations on the lower producers. With tight milk production economics, some dairies are using more groups to reduce the variation within groups.


This is a useful tool, but it’s important to minimize social stress by moving larger numbers of cows at less frequent intervals, rather than moving a few cows every week. It’s tempting to push your nutritionist to reduce feed costs when business is tight. But don’t do it at the expense of milk production, components, fertility or health.

Instead, make sure you’re getting the most from your feed expenditures, and make sure your nutritionist is up to speed on ration-balancing models and technology.

Mixing and delivering the ration is an often overlooked source of inefficiency. Equipment must be suitable for the type of ration being fed.

If the mixer can’t process the dry hay that may be important to your ration, then process it before mixing. Maintain the mixer by regularly checking and servicing knives, scales and paddle clearance. Don’t exceed the mixer’s capacity. Any of these equipment issues can result in inconsistent delivery of nutrients to the cows.

Follow appropriate procedures in loading sequence and mixing times. Place feedstuffs so they make sequencing and mixing easier. Monitor actual weights versus the amount specified in the batch. Mix the amount of time specified by the manufacturer.

Overmixing is usually more detrimental than undermixing, as it may breakdown long fiber and often results in separation.

Most importantly, monitor the results. Use shaker box analysis at the beginning, middle and end of feedout to determine mix uniformity. Repeat any time there is a significant ration change or major change in batch size.

Occasional use of lab analysis is useful to test uniformity and if the ration mixed is consistent with the ration formulated.

Feed additives
When cutting costs, “optional” additives are often the first to go. This is a bit of a paradox. If the additive is not producing an economic response, why was it in the ration? And if it is beneficial, how can you afford to remove it now?

The question usually comes down to two issues:
1. evaluating the response of the ingredient
2. sacrificing a potential long-term benefit (health or fertility) for immediate cost savings

If a product is producing a long-term benefit, it’s usually in your best interest to continue using it. To determine if an additive is suitable for your herd, first examine the research on the product or its components. Has it been demonstrated to provide a benefit in a variety of conditions, or at least in situations like yours?

Next, ask if your nutritionist has experience with the product. Does he or she know what ration adjustments, if any, should be made to maximize the benefit? If the additive is new to your nutritionist, encourage him/her to research the details.

Finally, what response are you looking for? Do you have a way to measure the return on investment? Target feed additives to animals that will produce an economic response, and feed to specific groups or during certain conditions. Predetermine the use criteria, so the plan can be followed on the dairy.

Performance evaluation
Whether it’s a ration or ingredient change, mixing procedure or feed additive, evaluating the result is very important – but difficult to do in commercial herds. First, be sure you’re looking for the right response.

Some changes may produce a response in milk production, components or dry matter intake in a few days. Certain ration changes and additives like Rumensin or some direct-fed microbials fit this scenario.

Other changes may have a slower milk response. And some additives (like vitamin E or chelated trace minerals) will not show a measurable milk response in the first month or two, but may produce a short- or long-term health or reproductive benefit.

By identifying the desired response and expected time frame, you’re less likely to reverse your decision inappropriately. The same principle is true when evaluating a potential negative result from a change.

Removing nutrients that you expected to make a long-term health benefit will not reduce milk income immediately, but may have a negative impact on your bottom line later. For changes of this type, rely more on research and less on the perceived response in your herd.

Use partial budgeting to evaluate individual ration or additive changes. What is the return (positive or negative) in dollars to a specific ration change? Did you gain 15 cents in milk for a cost of 8 cents per day? Good decision! Did you cut 14 cents per day in feed cost but lose 2 pounds of milk? Bad choice!

In this case, the feed cost per hundredweight (cwt) of milk may have been reduced, but even at $10 milk, it was a loss of 4 cents per cow daily.

Getting the most from your feed dollars means taking a hard look at the key areas of forages, commodities, ration formulation, mixing, additives and performance evaluation. Challenge your nutritionist to help you make good decisions based on returns, not just raw “cost.” PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

Dave Lahr is a nutritionist at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies, headquartered in Stewart, Minnesota. For more information, email to or call Dave at 800-422-3649.