While it would be awesome to simply feed cows the crops grown just across the fence and stored on-farm, unfortunately, this almost never comprises the entire diet. Hence, we live in a world of trucks, trains, barges, ships, and containers. There are ingredients in every ration that have many logistical hurdles to overcome before finally being loaded into the mixer.
As every dairy nutritionist will tell you, when these delivery systems fail, the phone rings or the text quickly comes. The producer needs help with a quick feed substitution for an ingredient that didn’t show up on time. It is important that we make these substitutions thoughtfully with the cow’s well-being, milk production support, and economics in mind.
The big ripple
One of the reasons this topic is becoming increasingly important is that our delivery systems are becoming ever more complicated. Recently, a computer glitch in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAAs) safety system grounded all U.S. flights for 90 minutes. As a result, 9,500 flights were delayed, and 1,300 flights were canceled. These days, our world is so interconnected that the ripple effects of this will go on for days.
Consider the recent threat of railway worker strike that was barely averted. If a last-minute agreement had not been reached, a similar stoppage in grain and other ingredient shipments would have long-term ripple effects. The ingredient availability shortfall and added cost would reach the feeding centers, grain bins, and commodity barns on every dairy across the U.S. To say the least, we must have plans in place to deal with these interruptions that are certain to occur at some point.
As a young feed company nutritionist in Central Texas in the early 1990s, I knew firsthand about the importance of logistics in feed deliveries. We fed grain to most cows in the parlor in those days and, with growing herd sizes and the same feed bin capacities, just in time delivery was the only way. So, I knew when each of as many as 35 different dairies started milking each morning. I remember many late nights and very early mornings on the phone with a fantastic trucking manager trying to schedule trucks to the right barns to get feed there before milking. Loading cows in the parlor with no feed was pretty much impossible. The margin for error was very small.
How does all of this differ from today? Back in those days, herds were milking a few hundred cows and there were no ingredient substitution opportunities. If you have robot feeders now, this same dynamic exists. However, in a commodity barn and feeding center setup, we have options. In general, someone from our team is always reachable if a client has an emergency feed substitution need. But, at times, I expect some very short-term changes are made on-farm, and we should educate our clients to make these wisely.
A few quick rules to keep in mind
The first two rules are more related to good housekeeping than science. First, remember dry matter (DM) percentage differences when making substitutions. If a wet ingredient like wet brewers or wet distillers needs to be replaced, don’t confuse the 90% DM of the ingredient likely used in its place. This is usually done in some type of feeding software that should be driven on DM pounds anyway. But take care to be sure.
This brings me to the second non-nutritional point that must be made. If you make a quick change in the diet to account for an outage, don’t forget to put it back and put it back correctly. If you ran out of gluten and replaced it with the correct ratio of corn and canola, be sure to have the previous diet handy to remember the original numbers.
And always, always, always verify that the total DM pounds when you are done is back where it is supposed to be. This is the best last check any time you make ration entry changes.
To more nutrient minded suggestions
It is often that we are first thinking about equalizing the protein supply in feeds as we replace them. This is important since protein in the diet today is a building block for tomorrow’s milk production. However, the considerations of starch and roughage, may be more critical to get right. If you supply a little less protein via a quick substitution, if it is for a day or so, it might not be a significant issue. But if your substitution ends up supplying a significant amount more starch or conversely, less fiber and roughage, rumen health could suffer.
Remember, corn silage is a tricky ingredient to use when replacing a missing ingredient due to the starch content. Always think of corn silage as two ingredients in one.
To no one’s surprise, wet by-products seem to be the most common things to run short and need a substitution for. Having a preplanned substitution for wet by-products or even an alternate ration set up in your feeding software is best. But remember that most of these by-products don’t contain much starch, so be careful using corn as part of their substitution.
Similarly, many of these by-products, wet or dry, contain some fiber and a little physical roughage. When replacing these, using a small amount of on-farm forage as part of the substitution is probably wise.
It is best to use the nutritionist’s formulation model to correctly solve these outages. But at times, we will probably all defer to our cowboy math and do some quick figuring to get through a feeding or two. I still use the Pearson Square for this task, and it is the perfect old standby. This method is mostly applicable for protein but will work for any nutrient. If you don’t know how to use it, google “Pearson Square” to learn more.
Don’t offend the rumen
The most important thing to remember when making these quick substitutions is to replace the correct amount of DM pounds and don’t hurt the rumen by increasing starch inadvertently. In every case, err on the side of care and don’t underfeed roughage. Any shortage in nutrient supply can most likely be quickly overcome with only a potential short reduction in milk flow. If you offend the rumen with your quick substitution, the return to normal milk flow will take much longer.