Nutrition: Make Good Feed Choices

16:37PM Oct 11, 2012

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The drought and resulting high ration costs have dairy producers and nutritionists scrambling for rations and low-cost ways to feed cows.

Current national average feed cost is $13 per cwt. of milk. In Minnesota, where crops were relatively good compared to other areas, our feed cost is at $11 to $12 per cwt. of milk.

While we would all like to think there is some "cheap" feed out there waiting to be acquired and fed, that just isn’t the case. Whether you’re purchasing forages, grains or protein feeds, they are all expensive. With the value of milk close to the cost of feed, this makes for very difficult economic conditions.

However, the old business adage "you have to spend money to make money" applies to feeding cows and getting milk return. You have to spend some money on feed to produce milk; you just don’t have to have a premium-cost ration when a good one will do.

Understanding what your dollar should be spent on and where it will get the best return is important for making good feed purchase decisions and maximizing income over ration cost in the next several months.

To achieve cost-effective milk production rations, spend feed dollars for basic, essential feeds and nutrients first.

Here’s a guideline on where your feed dollars should go in order to support basic milk production:

• Forages should comprise about 50% of the ration dry matter and should be the single biggest cost item in the diet, at 40% to 45% of the total ration cost. Home-raised forages will price in slightly lower than market-based forages.

• The next most essential feed and nutrient is starch. Cows need some starch for good milk production. Corn is the best source of starch; corn cost should be about 20% of total ration cost.

• Byproduct feeds can substitute for grain, protein or forage in dairy rations. Most byproducts are a source of fiber and/or protein. Their availability and use in dairy rations is quite variable, and it is therefore difficult to closely assess what a ration cost parameter should be. However, an allocation of less than 20% substituting for other ration cost is a good estimate.

• For good digestion and utilization of forage and grain, some rumen-degradable protein such as soybean meal is needed in the ration. Degradable protein sources should be 5% to 10% of the ration cost. For good milk production, some rumen-undegradable protein (RUP) should be included in the ration as well. These are not low-cost protein sources, so figure on spending 15% to 20% of total ration cost for RUP supplements.

• Minerals and vitamins should be 4% to 8% of the ration cost.

• Fat is a high source of energy that can substitute for other energy sources and supplement low-energy feedstuffs in the ration. Fat supplement costs should be 4% to 7% of the total ration cost.

• Feed additives are a very broad category of supplements that often improve milk production, the health of animals and overall feed utilization. The key reasons for including them in rations are that their inclusion rate is low for most additives and they are cost-effective. Feed additives often return more than the 2% to 6% of the ration cost they encompass.

The best use of feed dollars is for early-lactation cows. These cows will be the most efficient and maximize the return on feed dollars spent. Feeding these cows correctly is also essential for good reproduction. Mid- to late-lactation cows are not efficient and, if overfed, they can increase ration costs substantially with a low milk return.

In all phases of lactation, avoid over- or underfeeding nutrients for the most cost-effective milk production and best income over feed cost.