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Now’s a good time to look at ways to improve ration efficiency

Phil Bollman Published on 06 April 2011

Today, more than ever, smart nutrient management is critical to overall feed value and efficiency of the dairy operation. The cost of keeping cows productive is more intense and challenging than ever, and getting the most from the ration is critical, no matter what the production goals are.

Testing for starch content in forages is not a new concept and most every nutritionist knows this. However, more often overlooked is how starch type influences the herd and what can be fine-tuned to maximize results from it.



It is important to understand ruminal starch digestibility to have the herd more efficiently and consistently utilize starch. Diets properly balanced for ruminally degradable starch can result in higher yields of milk, milk protein, improved efficiency and persistence of milk yield.

Understanding starch content allows dairy producers to precisely calibrate their herd’s ration. Dairy producers should be aware of short-term and long-term areas to monitor where variation is most likely to occur. Variation frequently occurs from bunker to bunker and truckload to truckload.

Regularly scheduled testing of each bunker and pile for total starch content and digestibility of the starch will provide analyses to assist producers in calibrating the proper ration needed for the herd at that point in time. Producers should also look to their dairy herd production numbers for short-term signs of abnormal fluctuation.

Roger Martens, a dairy nutritionist in Watertown, S.D., works closely with herds in his area to fine-tune their rations using new technology that measures ruminal starch digestion, thus providing more precise information for balancing rations. Roger has found it effective to help dairy producers see – and understand – the variation that can be found in feed relative to starch availability.

Rodney Elliott in Lake Norden, S.D., is one dairy producer with whom Martens works closely. Milking approximately 1,650 cows on their recently expanded operation, Elliott began looking at starch testing insights differently when they built the larger dairy.


“We always believe in keeping cows healthy with a forage-based diet,” says Elliott. “Our biggest expense is purchased feed, and we buy all of our forages.” Elliott knows there is a lot to learn about feed and how it can vary from one purchase to the next.

“By sampling the nutrients we buy, we have more control over the nutritional peaks and can better balance it,” he notes. “While we can pick and choose what we buy, still it is only as good as we can use it. It is critical to us to make sure that what we see on paper (through starch testing) is consistent with what the cows are getting and how they are doing with the feed.”

“We want more control over the inputs,” adds Elliott. “It is important to know more about the forage so we know how to feed it. Before using the new starch-testing technology to analyze the digestion more, we did not have control of the forage side. Now we are gaining more control, and it has helped us buy acres of ‘the right’ corn.”

Analysis and sampling make good business sense to Elliott. The dairy strives to balance rations toward the peak of the production curve. “We work to maximize inputs for optimized outputs,” he adds; “in turn, this optimizes the dollars we spend on feed.”

Gerhard Ter Denge is another dairyman that Roger Martens works with, based out of Millbank, S.D. Ter Denge milks 500 cows, and both grows and purchases feed.

“We started looking at the new starch technology in 2009,” says Ter Denge. “Our corn silage was bad that year, but through testing we were able to keep up milk production to 90 pounds per day. Our goals were to reduce feed costs and still keep cows healthier.


I have been able to achieve those goals, including lowering feed costs and even less veterinarian costs,” he adds. Ter Denge considers testing starch as a means of helping him achieve feed consistency in silage. “Every day, feed is the same, milk is the same, ingredients are the same,” says Ter Denge. “Consistency and cost – one follows the other, and not just feed costs.”

It is important that ruminal starch digestibility is assessed and measured in today’s dairy operation rations. New technology recently available on the market can help calibrate the likelihood of starch usage and in turn deliver precise information dairy producers and their nutritionists need to more effectively balance rations in today’s feed/milk price ration challenge.

Dairy producers should explore the options for various feed ingredients with their nutritionist, and find ways to reduce ration cost. Teaming with your nutritionist to better understand rumen starch digestibility might help identify alternative, convenient and less-costly options that would allow you to maximize production goals and further minimize feed costs. PD

Phil Bollman
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