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Dairy Focus: Use Feed Strategies to Optimize Profits

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist
NDF Digestibility and Corn Silage Starch Content Important in Determining Feeding Value. NDF Digestibility and Corn Silage Starch Content Important in Determining Feeding Value.
Dairy producers have more than one way to feed a cow.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

This final article in a series focusing on the economics of making nutritional decisions during times of volatile feed prices summarizes the work of Normand St-Pierre of Ohio State University and Joanne Knapp of Fox Hollow Consulting, which they presented at the High Plains Dairy Conference in Albuquerque, N.M., this spring.

They recommend that dairy producers always should target less than maximum milk yield to optimize income over feed costs and profits. When milk prices are relatively high and feed costs are relatively low, such as in the late 1990s, the optimum nutritional levels (that is, nutrient concentrations in the diet) are very near those required for maximum milk production. But when milk prices are low or feed prices are high, the optimal levels can be significantly less than those required to support maximum milk production.

The exact mathematical optimization requires a known response function to nutritional inputs, but the approaches lack the required precision to make them useful in practice. For the time being, different strategies can be evaluated using available ration balancing software (National Research Council, CPM-Dairy, Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System, etc.) and the expert help of a professional nutritionist.

Generally, forages are a cost-effective way to deliver nutrients to ruminants. Increasing inclusion of forages in place of concentrates can affect neutral detergent fiber (NDF), crude protein, rumen undegradable protein, nonfiber carbohydrate and net energy for lacation levels in a ration, as well as increasing forage NDF and physically effective NDF (peNDF). Significant attention has been given to minimum levels of forage NDF or peNDF to ensure adequate rumination and prevent rumen acidosis and milk fat depression. Maximum NDF levels are determined by net energy for lactation requirements (National Resarch Council, 2001) and are affected by NDF digestibility.

As grain prices have increased since the 2006 harvest, significant increases in forage utilization have occurred, often with little or no decrease in milk yield.

Better quality forages can be utilized more extensively in dairy rations than poorer ones. Quality is defined as the ability of the forage to deliver digestible nutrients (energy, protein, etc.) to the cow. Maturity and dry-matter content at harvest have large impacts on forage quality, as do harvesting and storage procedures. Grain content of the small-grain silages and corn silage also has a large impact on forage quality and the potential to increase forage proportions in a ration, as well as the economic return from milk production.

The take-home message is that many dairy producers have reduced corn inclusion in rations for lactating dairy cows by 25 percent to 35 percent by increasing forage and byproduct utilization without sacrificing milk yield or milk components. The keys to success are: * Use maximum forage quality and optimize forage allocation.

  • Periodically question the need for every feed ingredient in your diary rations. Cows do not have a requirement for specific feed (for example, corn or soybeans), but rather for the nutrients in these feeds.
  • Question narrow nutrient constraints when formulating dairy rations. Many such constraints are not well-supported by research.
  • Alter diet specifications based on the price of milk and feed inputs.
  • Maximize the use of bargain feedstuffs and minimize the use of overpriced feedstuffs.

Many opinions exist on the reason for these record costs. As for agriculture, the cropper’s gain is often the livestock producer’s loss. When feed costs represent the greatest share of cost to produce livestock, many business management challenges are brought to the planning table.

The bottom line is you should work with a dairy nutrition professional and shouldn’t accept the dogma that there is only one way to feed a cow.


NDSU Agriculture Communication

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