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Surviving the economic storm with ration balancing software

Tom Gray Published on 03 February 2010

Too much rain, too cool, too dry, too hot. There are some operating factors that dairy producers just can’t control.

Some say you could add the current economy to that list of uncontrollable forces. And, like an unexpected late summer thunderstorm, today’s economic climate has flooded dairy producers with concerns about their operations, their production and their finances.



Producers are being forced to look at the challenges they can manage. Because ingredients are the largest on-farm cost, today’s high ingredient prices and low milk prices are pushing producers toward optimizing their use of opportunity ingredients and on-farm forages. Producers are seeking nutrition consultation to get tighter rations and less waste. Flexible rations and the ability to compare costs are essential to make sure ration changes are truly cost-effective. Producers want the ability to review how ingredient changes relate to herd health, nutrition and production. Producers are asking how to feed less protein, adjust amino acids and take advantage of milk component pricing.

Nutritionists and feed companies are being driven by producers to optimize cow nutrition, use on-farm feedstuffs with maximum efficiency, for the least amount of money possible, and still meet each producer’s goals.

Producers have become more active in sourcing ingredients that reduce their feed costs. And nutritionists are challenged to incorporate the lower cost, and sometimes nutritionally inferior ingredients into a producer’s feeding program. And it’s not just incorporating the ingredient for less cost. The nutritionist needs to be able to evaluate the effect of the ingredient change on the herd’s production, future nutrition, health and reproduction.

“Efficient use of ingredients is essential to surviving in the dairy industry today. To increase margins, or even maintain production, ingredients need to be used wisely and ration balancing needs to be sophisticated,” says Dr. Charlie Sniffen, Fencrest independent dairy nutrition consultant. Sniffen works with ingredient suppliers and feed companies to help dairy producers control costs.

Ration balancing software programs, used by feed company representatives and independent dairy nutrition consultants, can help dairy producers weather the economic hurricane. Ration balancing not only lets producers take advantage of least-cost ingredients and on-farm feedstuffs, it also helps evaluate their current feeding program by making comparisons to multiple rations.


What ration balancing program features best help producers ride this economic wave?

Great biology base

Effective ration balancing programs incorporate nutritional models that understand total cow nutrition and the factors that affect a cow’s complex digestion system. The models within the ration software must accurately predict cow requirements within a broad range of feeding situations and with a large base of ingredients, including on-farm forages and grains. And sub-models should further define fatty acid profiles and amino acids. Manufacturers of ration balancing programs must regularly update the biology base to incorporate the most current technology and the latest nutrition models.


“The main feature required in a ration balancing program is flexibility. Flexibility to handle large numbers of ingredients, flexibility to make sound rations based upon the producers’ goals and operational requirements and flexibility to provide formulas for premixes, protein concentrates or grain rations,” comments Dr. Essi Evans, one of our dairy nutrition/model advisers.

“The ration balancing user should be able to choose to formulate simple diets or to solve complex digestive models. Several nutrition models (CPM, CNCPS, NRC, etc.) have to be available to each user. Some software programs even allow users to evaluate against multiple models. This allows the nutritionist to provide input based upon the dairy producer’s current needs,” adds Evans.

A flexible ration balancing program incorporates feedstuffs that are important to individual producers. The program also allows use of multiple nutrition platforms, facilitates setting ingredient and nutrition minimums and maximums, and allows comparisons of nutrients, ingredients, rations and ration costs.

Least-cost and nutrient comparisons

“One of the greatest challenges in feeding cows is ensuring that the producer makes the best possible use of the ingredients available, and that the purchased part of the feed premix, protein concentrates or grain ration rounds out the home-grown ingredients appropriately,” states Evans. “We can can generate graphs to give producers a view of how their ration compares to the animal nutrient requirements and helps identify out-of-balance nutrients.”


Ration comparisons give producers the opportunity to explore all the scenarios of changing ration ingredients. Nutrient comparisons reflect how ingredient changes affect production and herd nutrition. Comparisons also determine which ingredients might provide the best return and helps plan future ingredient purchases.

Ration balancing software that allows for a side-by-side comparison of different rations is also useful. Comparing actual rations helps producers make better ingredient choices. With a ration least-cost comparison, a nutritionist and producer can identify where feedstuffs fit in the feeding solution and in the cost analysis.

Software that also features upper and lower ingredient price ranges can set a baseline for cost comparisons. Those comparisons quickly determine if using a particular ingredient is viable.

Another valuable comparison tool for monitoring feed costs is shadow pricing. This feature helps determine at what price a feed ingredient will be used in the ration and if that ingredient offers an economic advantage before it is purchased.

Fine-tune rations

“Ration balancing software allows us to fine-tune rations and explore feeding alternatives. We can better utilize on-farm forages and evaluate cost-effective ingredients,” says Dr. Clay Zimmerman, Blue Seal Feeds , director of dairy nutrition. “We need to be able to optimize the goals of the producer with a balance between production and costs.”

Some ration balancing programs incorporate a feature to allow you to fully classify your cows. This feature uses the model to account for individual animal statistics like days in lactation, lactation number, body condition score, breed, environment (temperature, wind, mud, humidity), amino acids as a percent of MP and more.

With ration balancing programs and even with the best feeding solution decisions, cow management and the power of regular cow observation can’t be ignored. It’s imperative that dairymen know their herd. When mis-feeding cows, milk production changes are obvious. But ration change effects on herd health and reproduction may not be as quickly diagnosed. It’s important that nutritionists and dairy producers work as a team to determine the best rations for their herd.

As the dairy industry moves toward more sophistication, fine-tuning and precision feeding is inevitable. Advanced nutritional models will further refine nutrient parameters in forage and better predict forage performance.

You may not be able to control the weather or the economic unrest, but you can influence your costs and therefore your income. With good knowledge, the guidance of a nutritional consultant and the power of a ration balancing program, dairy producers can survive the gale forces of this economic storm. PD

Tom Gray
  • Tom Gray

  • Vice President, Business Development
  • Dalex Livestock Solutions
  • Email Tom Gray