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Dairy Focus: Some Feed Cost Cutbacks Can Cost You

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension Service dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension Service dairy specialist
Replacing or dropping some ingredients from a dairy cow’s diet may not save money in the long run.

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

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on the impact of the growing ethanol industry and rising feed and fuel prices on the region’s dairy farmers.

No discussion about livestock, especially in dairy circles, can avoid lamenting the skyrocketing cost of feed.

With today’s high price of feed, everyone is trying to cut corners. But as Mike Hutgens at the University of Illinois puts it, some cutbacks could backfire.

During times of tight margins, be careful when cutting your feed costs. I cannot remember a time in the past when a dairy farmer has said, “I removed quality forage and it saved me money.” Without exception, producers have attested that simply cutting feed costs with regard only to price saved nickels but cost dimes in the long run.

Drawing from Hutgens’ recommendations, here are some decision areas dairy farmers must contemplate before removing or replacing certain feed ingredients.

Decision: I am going to add 5 pounds of straw to the ration to reduce forage needs.

Impact: Straw can replace long forage and provide functional fiber (rumen mat formation and cud chewing). One guideline is: 1 pound of straw dry matter can replace 3 pounds of hay/hay silage dry matter due to its higher lignin content and longer rumen retention time. But, adding too much straw will affect total dry-matter intake, reducing nutrient levels and milk yield. Before adding straw, evaluate the current ration levels of neutral detergent fiber, lignin and acid detergent fiber, and determine what the straw will add. I recommend adding .5 pound of straw to the ration and monitoring cow response – milk yield, milk components and manure score – for one to two weeks. If the response is favorable, consider adding another .5 pound. Adding more than 2 pounds of straw may be too much.

Decision: Hay at $200-plus a ton is too expensive.

Impact: While hay prices are high, be aware that hay can improve rumen digestion and microbial growth. Adding 5 pounds of high-quality (170 relative feed value) hay could improve milk yield by 3 to 5 pounds. If milk is worth 18 cents a pound, each pound of hay would be worth 11 to 18 cents a pound, or $220 to $360 a ton. Monitor responses in your herd when adding or removing hay. Make changes gradually by 1-pound increments.

Decision: Urea is cheaper than plant protein. How high can I go?

Impact: Urea will be cheaper per unit of nitrogen, compared with vegetable protein sources, but rumen bacteria must convert urea nitrogen to microbial protein. The following factors should be considered before shifting to urea: * Check the level of soluble protein in your ration. If it is more than 34 percent of total protein, the substituted urea will be excreted in the cow’s urine. If the level of soluble protein is less than 30 percent of the total protein, urea can be beneficial while reducing feed costs.

  • The level of added urea should be less than 0.25 pound per cow per day.
  • To capture the nitrogen as microbial protein, you must feed adequate rumen-fermentable carbohydrates (25 percent starch, 5 percent sugar and/or 10 percent fermentable fiber, such as pectin). One guideline is 1 pound of urea plus 6 pounds of shelled corn equals 7 pounds of soybean meal, based on energy and protein content.
  • Monitor milk urea nitrogen (MUN) levels to determine whether the urea is captured as microbial protein. MUN should not go up more than 2 to 3 units.
  • Another alternative is to use a slow-release urea commercial product to improve nitrogen capture.

Decision: I am going to split my herd and mix a lower-cost total mixed ration for the low-group cows.

Impact: To analyze this decision, University of Illinois researchers balanced two rations for 80 and 60 pounds of milk using current feed prices. For cows producing 80 pounds of milk, daily feed costs were $5.10 per head per day, cows consumed 49.6 pounds of dry matter and the cost was 10.2 cents per pound of dry matter. For cows balanced at 60 pounds of milk, the feed cost was $4.01 per cow per day, cows consumed 44.9 pounds of dry matter and ration costs were 9 cents per pound of dry matter. Based on these computer results, you can save some money, providing cows do not drop in milk yield when being moved to a lower group. Keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Cows may drop 4 to 7 pounds of milk when shifted midlactation due to social interactions of cows and lower feed intake. (These cows do not return to their earlier, higher milk yield.) This lower milk yield can reduce income by 80 cents to $1.20 per cow per day.
  • Cows normally eating less, with lower milk yield, results in savings without you having a second ration. In other words, fewer pounds of the more expensive 80-pound milk ration are consumed. In our example, the 4.6 pounds less dry matter consumed could save 46 cents a day due to less feed intake, compared with the $1.09 savings by shifting cows to the lower-nutrient ration with correcting for potential milk yield.
  • High-producing cows will need extra nutrients to regain lost body weight and extra nutrients will allow younger cows to grow.
  • Consider body condition score (BSC). Cows that exceed 3.5 BCS in midlactation will need to be moved to a lower diet to avoid metabolic risks in the next lactation. Generally, 10 percent of cows may be in this category.

Decision: I want to monitor benchmarks when making ration changes.

Impact: Here are guidelines that can be used to determine whether you made an economically correct or wrong decision:

  • MUN: Target MUN values are between 8 and 14 milligrams per deciliter.
  • Ratio of milk protein to milk fat: Ayrshire – 0.82, Brown Swiss – 0.82, Guernsey – 0.74, Holstein – 0.82, and Jersey – 0.78. For example, the Jersey value of 0.78 is based on 3.54 percent true protein divided by 4.57 percent milk fat.
  • Feed efficiency: Your goal should be more than 1.5 pounds of 3.5 percent fat-corrected milk per pound of dry matter consumed.
  • Feed cost per pound of dry matter: It ranges from 9 to 11 cents per pound, but will vary by region.
  • Feed cost per 100 pounds of milk: We like to see less than $7 per hundredweight. Again, this will vary by region.

With dairy-quality alfalfa hay reportedly more than $280 a ton and shelled corn more than $5.50 per bushel, dairy farms are looking for ways to reduce feed costs, especially with milk prices down by as much as $2 per hundredweight.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

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