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‘Their worst feed is better than average TMR’

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 03 February 2010

Can you imagine three different feeders mixing up your dairy’s ration four or five times per day and getting it exactly right every time?

Ration 1

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Nearly impossible, some would say. Nutritionist Dave Lidy says he’s seen how it’s done, and it’s the reason he’s most proud of his clients at Thole Ag Inc., a 625-cow dairy in Aviston, Illinois.

“There’s no guess work when it comes to what the cows will receive load after load,” Lidy says. “I don’t know if there is anything I want them to do that they’re not doing.”

Thole Ag Inc. is a partnership between four Thole brothers – Dan, David, Dale and Darryl. Each brother specializes in different areas of the farming operation. Dan is the dairy’s day-to-day feed manager. Lidy has been working with the Tholes for more than a decade. He says the dairy’s nutrition program lets each of the brothers do what they do best – dairy and farm.

“Their strategy is to put all of the most expensive purchased feeds in one bin. They pay a little extra for that convenience, but it pays for itself by minimizing shrink and limiting on farm mixing errors.” Lidy says. “I advise them when we should be changing ingredients or locking in contracted feeds. It lets them focus on the cows and the farm.”

Feed is delivered as-needed about every six hours. Each of the brothers watches for an empty bunk before mixing up a 17,000-pound batch of fresh feed. Lidy says he believes this reduces sorting and feed refusals.

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“That’s extra effort on their part,” Lidy says. “But I think they get more dry matter intake and milk because of it.”

Even with the labor-intensive feeding program, the dairy still averages 1.5 million pounds of milk per full-time employee. Each of the brothers is trained to check for slight changes in TMR moisture content and adjust each batch accordingly. Lidy says that to double-check ration delivery accuracy he will use a shaker box once per month to observe particle sizes in the ration.

“They are all really good at knowing how long to mix the hay, for example,” Lidy says. “Every batch is the same – time after time.”

He also carefully watches the dairy’s pounds of milk per pound of dry matter consumed. If that number is higher than 1.7 or lower than 1.5, it’s time to tweak something.

High-quality forages are at the core of the ration. Lidy says after 75 days of feeding 2009’s silage crop he’s pleased with the results so far, even though this year’s silage starch level –38% – is a notch below last year’s crop.

The Tholes set their silage cut length a bit long at 15/16 of an inch to plan for particle size reduction; they ensile it in vertical storage. Lidy says the dairy’s target cut length for their silage in a TMR is 3/4 of an inch.

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The Tholes have made a significant investment in quality forage production. They own their own self-propelled six-row chopper and grow all of their own silage on 650 acres of land, which is capable of growing 20 to 25 tons of corn silage per acre.

“They want to be able to go out to their field the day and hour they want to chop,” Lidy says. “They want to control harvest timing, chop length and kernel processing. If it’s good quality, we can feed a lot of what we grow, which really helps the cash flow situation on dairies I work with.”

Some alfalfa hay is purchased from Kansas every 10 days. Lidy says the hay is consistently between 155 to 165 relative feed value.

“Having a consistent forage supply makes things easier for me,” Lidy says.

That’s because Lidy is responsible for not only choosing what other feeds to balance with the dairy’s forages but also to forward contract them at the best price possible.

“We take a look at what is supplied to the diet by the forages, evaluate on-farm factors, such as cow health, body condition score, milk production, etc. Then we complement those forages with purchased feeds that help us reach our objectives,” Lidy says.

For example, in most years the Tholes’ ration would have included contracted dry grain corn, but this year’s weather conditions forced the Tholes to harvest their grain corn early and feed it as high-moisture corn at 36 percent moisture content.

Lidy says the dairy has done well to take what forages they have and contract their energy and protein sources at low cost. Last fall the Thole’s took advantage of a price cap program offered by their feed supplier and bought $7-8 per ton options on their grain mix. This allowed them to set the maximum price on their purchased feed and still take advantage of price decreases, if the grain markets turned lower.

“We should be better at forward-pricing milk,” Lidy says. “But we are pretty good at recognizing feed changes to cover feed costs.”

Lidy says two years ago when corn and soybeans hit their peak most of his clients had contracted early at lower prices and avoided paying near the top end.

“Don't short-change the cows” was Lidy’s consistent theme last year. This year he believes it will pay off.

“I had most of my guys who stayed the course. They kept feeding cows well, even through the negative cash flow,” Lidy says. “So we don’t have to heal up any wounds from feeding cows cheap. I have most of my guys ready to start making 80 to 85 pounds right now.”

Lidy says the dairy has always had both of the two fundamental prerequisites he suggests of his clients – cow comfort and high-quality forages. Last summer they did well getting cows pregnant due to cooler weather. He anticipates they will have more fresh cows to milk this spring than last.

“2009 made us all better at not being so lax,” Lidy says. “Before we all milked too many late-lactation cows too long, we left them in the high group too long (even though they weren’t making much money), we didn’t pay close enough attention to dry cows, and we wasted money on feeding older heifers.”

Those areas of improvement must stay a focus for dairymen to survive in the short term, Lidy says.

“My goal for 2010 is to make sure all of my dairymen remember those efficiencies we had to force ourselves into in 2009,” Lidy says. “As long as we can remember those things, it will be a good year.” PD

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