Pick the Right Nutritionist

May 3, 2012 07:03 PM

What matters in one of your team’s most valuable members.

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Dairy nutritionist Tony Timmons studies the ration at the feedbunk of a Central California dairy. (Photos: Catherine Merlo)


When it comes to his dairy’s nutritionist, Illinois producer Doug Block wants the total package.

"We look for someone who’s not just developing the ration but who’s our second set of eyes and ears on the dairy," he says.

That means a nutritionist who can help Block find and price his feed, recognize when freestall adjustments are needed, and act quickly when two weeks of rain knock dry-matter intake levels out of whack. For the past eight years, Block has found all that in Jim Barmore of GPS Dairy Consulting. But it wasn’t always so.

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Block and his brother, Tom, operate Hunter Haven Farms near Pearl City, Ill. They manage an 800-cow, high-producing dairy and an 1,800-acre farm. In 1997, they increased their herd size from 90 to 500 milk cows. As the Blocks’ operation grew to its present size, they found their needs had changed.

"It used to be that nutritionists were employed by feed companies," Block says. "At the end of the day, you were always feeding their supplements. We learned a lesson: find a nutritionist who’s truly balancing your ration, regardless of his relationship with a feed company."

As costs for feed and feed additives soar, dairy nutritionists have become increasingly critical. The nutritionist you choose will have a major effect on your herd’s health and productivity—and your dairy’s success. Just as producers have become more management-focused, the nutritionist’s role has also expanded.

"We formulate diets, yes, but we’re also part of the dairy’s management team," says Tony Timmons, a nutritionist with Progressive Dairy Solutions. That expanded role requires a working relationship based on shared goals, trust and communication.

"A good nutritionist is willing to problem-solve and suggest ideas," Block says. "He should also be part of a nutritionists’ network, where they can get together and exchange ideas, just like producers do."

Being part of a network is one reason he has earned the business of a large Central California dairy, says Timmons, whose company oversees 450,000 dairy cows in several states. "There are 17 people in our group. We’re better for it because we can lean on everybody’s experience and expertise. We challenge and push each other."

Timmons’ group sets benchmarks for performance through a 110-herd program. They look at production, reproduction, transitioning and feed costs. "We’re always looking at commodity costs and how those do or don’t fit into the ration," he says.

How do you choose a good nutritionist? The first step is discussing your goals. Is your priority healthy cows? Higher milk production? Increased profits? Or all of them?

"If you’re not thinking and working along the same lines, it’s not going to be a win-win situation," says Jim Linn, a retired dairy nutritionist with the University of Minnesota Extension who now consults for feed companies.

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After pulling a cross-section of hay at a dairy, nutritionist Tony Timmons bags the sample to send to a New York lab for analysis.

"You’ve got to talk about the problems a dairy has," says Merrill May, an independent nutritionist. "And then you have to work one-on-one with the producer and spend a lot of time with his cows to bring about the best solution."

Independent nutritionist Shannon Cobb encourages producers to walk the dairy with prospective nutritionists. "See how they interact with your cows and your employees. That will determine whether or not they’re a good match for you," she says.

Establish other expectations for services. "How often will your nutritionist come to your dairy?" May asks. "What’s his or her availability if something goes wrong? Is he or she accessible by phone or e-mail?"

A nutritionist should help your dairy reduce feed shrink, says Rick Lundquist, an associate of May’s in a group of nine independent nutritionists at Nutrition Professionals. "There’s not a lot you can do about ingredient market prices, but you can work on wasting as little as possible," he says.

Five Signs of a Good Nutritionist

1. Happy clients. Reputation counts, but confirm it with referrals. Ask prospective nutritionists how they’ll charge for services, how often they’ll visit your dairy and what kind of results they’ve produced for their clients. Check with other producers, nutritionists and even ingredient suppliers.

2. Advanced education and certification. A master’s or doctoral degree in dairy science or dairy nutrition reflects significant scientific knowledge—and that’s important. But a nutritionist who’s involved in an industry organization such as the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists is likely to have been certified through examination, continuing education and commitment to a code of ethics. That’s a plus.

3. Experience. Possessing a Ph.D. doesn’t mean a nutritionist will do a good job. Years of experience are invaluable. Frequently moving from job to job, however, may be a red flag.

4. Strong communication skills. "A nutritionist can be the smartest guy in the world, but if he can’t communicate with a producer, it doesn’t do a lot of good," says nutritionist Rick Lund-quist. "He should be able to communicate with everyone from the dairy’s management all the way to the people who do the mixing and feeding."

5. Dedication to your dairy. Good nutritionists will walk your dairy’s pens as cows are being fed to make sure the total mixed ration is getting where it needs to go, in the right amounts. They’ll study your dairy’s needs and problems. They’ll look at your silage piles and work on reducing waste throughout your feed chain. "A good nutritionist will be on call 24/7," Lundquist says.

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Spell Check

5/25/2012 10:19 AM

  As a dairy operator, and knowing how outfits like Progressive Dairy Solutions work, why would one "pick" a nutrition outfit that is primarily out to push their mineral packs at a hidden cost to the dairymen? These nutrition groups are best at dropping by dairies with empty promises along with their business cards always on the prowl to push thier products. They have no concept of herd health, reproduction, economics, etc. Those that have these types of nutritionist working for them are, big surprise, those who are the least profitable!

6/21/2012 03:55 AM

  In response to madseal's comment, I am a dairy nutrition consultant and I work directly for the dairy producer. Our priority is to provide valuable service and advice to our clients as well as ensure that the animals' nutritional programs are well formulated. Because we often work with a number of different feed mills, it's important that we are certain of the quality of specific products. One way we do that is to offer a nutrition supplement or mineral pack that we have specially formulated and made at a controlled facility. It is not so that we can make more money. If the dairy is not profitable, the cows not healthy, our role as a team member there is very short-lived. Thank you.


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