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|JIM PECK is an indpendent nutrition consultant based in Newark, N.Y. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With feed commodities at almost record highs and little indication in sight for any significant relief, most dairy producers are realizing that just hunkering down with some short-term fixes will not likely be enough for the long term. The current improved milk prices are resulting in some larger milk checks, but they are simply being chewed up by the higher feed bills.
Most of our dairies have sharpened up their management and done some good shopping for feeds. They have closed up the gaps that cost money or lost production in response to the past few years of tight margins. But there seems to be no letup in the current trends in cost, especially feeds.
We have had some farms consider and a few actually initiate a program of simply feeding less purchased feeds. The protocol is to reduce the feed per cow by half a pound per day and watch what happens to production. If after a week there is no loss in production, try another half-pound, and so on.
It is a simplistic approach and will surely save feed cost, but it is fraught with potential problems. Depending on the specific ingredient involved, the result may not have much impact on current production. Unfortunately, long-term productivity and cow health are not measured by day-to-day fluctuations in milk output. The bottom line is that a simple cutback strategy is not a good program.
There are other proven management and operating strategies that offer opportunities to rein in feed costs. Current times and circumstances should bring some of these to the top of your "to do" list.
First, bring new feeds into play. Corn distillers’ grains are a good example. They are a byproduct of ethanol production. In most areas they are available only as a dry product, but in some areas the wet product is also available. They can be used as a replacement for corn in diets. Some have tried distillers’ grains with less than acceptable response, but don’t give up.
With the trends in ethanol production and corn usage, the economics of using distillers’ grains will be more and more important. One of the basics is to understand that not all distillers are the same. Different locations and plants produce distillers’ grains of significantly different quality, consistency and feeding value.
Know the suppliers, analyze feed samples often and monitor the consistency. Based on the analysis, especially fat content and protein quality, formulate distillers’ grains in the diets correctly. Don’t just feed the cheapest distillers’ grains around; be a careful and knowledgeable user. They do work.
Based on your location, there are other unique feeds that may come into play. The same principles are important. Quality, consistent supply, analysis to know the feeding values, careful formulation and cow acceptance all must be considered.
Second, make harvest, storage and feeding of the highest-quality forage an absolute priority. The right quality of forage, skillful ration building and consistent diet management can result in going from 50% forage in your diets to 60%, and even as high as 70%. That goes directly to the bottom line as reduced purchased feed cost.
At this time of year, many decisions are made that determine the success of the year’s forage program. Picking the right varieties for corn silage and forage seedings is the start. Be prepared to hit the right planting times—often, earlier is better.
Be ready to harvest in a small window for the highest feed values. Have an efficient system to move the harvested forage into a good storage environment to preserve maximum quality. Then feed out to maintain and deliver the quality to the cows.
If poor decisions are made or plans fail at this time of the year, or if planting and harvesting windows are missed, it is difficult to turn them around. Many times, a year’s success may be in jeopardy.
High-quality harvested and stored feeds must be taken advantage of. Analyzing, formulating and monitoring needs to be part of your routine management activity. An intensive feed analysis program lays the foundation for knowledgeably maximizing quality forages and reducing the possibility of overfeeding purchased feeds.
The reality is that a single analysis of a given batch of feed is inadequate for accurate, safe and successful tight ration formulation. Also remember that day-to-day changes in the dry matter of silages may be your largest variable in the program. Constant monitoring of silages and ration dry matters can be a practice that makes real money.
Finally, track inventories. The best utilization of quality forages and the most precise feeding plan will fail if you run out of a key component.
Allow yourself time to adjust the feed-out rates to fully utilize your farm-raised feeds and not run out a couple of weeks early. Remember to allow time for the fermentation of new feeds and changes in cow numbers.