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Dairy Focus: Balance Ration to Offset Expensive Corn

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist
NDSU’s dairy specialist offers advice on finding alternatives to corn in the dairy cow’s diet.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist NDSU Extension Service

Milk prices are up, but so are feed costs. With a strong market, dairy producers certainly don’t want to skimp on feed to capture maximum returns, but if milk prices weren’t good, today’s escalating feed costs would be a killer.

Here are some questions dairy producers are asking:

Q: How long will the higher milk prices last?

A: I can’t predict the market, but I can assume they will come down. That’s why dairy herdsmen want to optimize milk yield. With $3 to $5-plus corn and increasing alfalfa hay prices, nutritionists probably will use more corn silage, high-quality hay and byproducts, but not as much corn. Corn is an excellent source of starch and performs a valuable role in the diet. Producers are trying to stretch that starch as far as possible in feeding programs. Research still recommends 24 percent to 26 percent starch in the diet.

Q: Is all that starch necessary?

A: Yes, the rumen requires starch to optimize rumen microbial growth and provide glucose in the small intestine.

Q: Does starch have to come from corn?

A: No. Cereal grains, such as barley or wheat, could replace some or most of the corn. Usually the price of the cereal grains is higher than corn on a starch basis. Other alternatives, such as byproducts (wheat midds or corn gluten feed), also exist. But remember that most of the time, starch has been removed. Don’t overlook fermentable or salvageable fiber sources, such as beet pulp or soy hulls. They can complement low-starch levels as a source of rumen-fermentable carbohydrates.

Q: Will distillers grains work to replace shell corn?

A: Partially. Distillers grains are higher in protein oil and fiber than corn (which is used to make ethanol), but low in starch. Substituting distillers grains for corn will not achieve comparable results if starch levels already are balanced for corn. Work with your nutritionist before making a big shift here.

That makes corn silage the “wild card.” It is an excellent fiber source and, depending on the grain present, typically a good starch source as well. However, be sure to get these forages analyzed. I’m hearing some concerns out there that, despite our excellent yields in 2007, the starch levels in some corn silages were not what was expected.

Any time feed costs are this high, finding places to cut is only prudent. This may include reevaluating expensive additives. The key word is “evaluate.” These are truly challenging times for nutritionists who are trying to keep your feed costs in line. But with costs now at about 8.5 cents per pound of dry matter per cow per day, the pressure is on to cut, cut, cut!

Lowering starch levels or shifting starch sources can work. Double-check the protein levels as well; you may be able to leave out 1 percent without any loss in milk yield or components.

How will you know? Ask the cow. Do this by observing her. She is always right, not because she is the farm mastermind, but because she communicates in subtle ways to tell you she and her rumen are not being fed adequately. Watch for these signs:

  • Milk production decline (indicates a shortage of starch)
  • Milk protein test drops (indicates low microbial yield)
  • Milk urea nitrogen increase (indicates protein nitrogen not captured)
  • Manure consistency stiffens (indicates more undigested fiber)

Ration balancing is probably the best investment you can make this year.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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