Different dairies have different ideas on using bagged ingredients when making rations on-farm. Some are open to the idea, while others are staunchly against it. Adding totes as another option is often helpful, but the openness to use totes is also hotly contested. During the past few years of very tight incoming feed logistics, some strongly held preferences have gone by the wayside in order to get an ingredient in any form at all.

Why all the fuss?

Who is right?

It might be assumed that on larger dairies, operators are less likely to source ingredients in bags. The reasoning is that, at some point, a large dairy should be able to take advantage of lower freight rates on bulk ingredients. At the same time, smaller dairies with a slower rate of usage might be a better fit for bags. However, these tendencies based on herd size do not hold. While every situation is different, there are some general principles that can guide a dairy when deciding if bags are a good fit for a particular need on their farm.

There’s an extra cost

The first negative on bagged ingredients on a dairy is cost per ton. The bag is clearly not free, nor is the extra time, machinery, and labor to move them around. Logically, anything that can be brought bulk to the dairy and used up in a timely fashion will be cheaper per ton.

In reality, the bag versus bulk question mostly comes down to how a medium to large dairy should handle low-inclusion ingredients like mineral supplements, fat products, or other additives. In other words, even a small- to medium-sized dairy might get bulk soybean meal that has a 7-pound per cow feed rate.

But how about the mineral supplement for the far-off dry cows? This feeding rate may be less than half a pound. The smaller the dairy, the better the fit for these low-inclusion ingredients to arrive in bags. But, it may also be the right choice for the large dairy.

In this list of low-inclusion ingredients, no matter the size of the dairy, having these delivered in bags is usually the right choice. Let’s assume we are talking about a mineral supplement for a pregnant heifer that has a feed rate of 0.5 pound per day. Even if the bagged option costs $100 more per ton, that is only 2.5 cents per heifer per day. This seems like a good investment to be sure the correct amount is loaded, and it also allows for smaller quantities to be delivered to the farm. Many feed companies will deliver one, two, or three tons of bagged mineral but might require a half or even full truckload if delivered bulk.

Improved accuracy

Another benefit of bagged ingredients is accuracy of loading into the mixer. If you have a 0.5-pound feed rate of an ingredient, and you are making a load of feed for 500 cows, loading five bags is likely more accurate than trying to drop exactly 250 pounds of loose mineral with a large loader bucket with shaky hydraulics. In fact, if the tendency or risk of improper loading is to the “heavy” direction, any overloading of a high-cost ingredient like a mineral could easily wipe out the 2.5 cents per head savings by taking the product in bulk versus bag.

It is common that the most expensive ingredients in a ration are fed at the lowest inclusion rate. Thus, they are great candidates to have in bags on the dairy. Using visually different types of bags, or ones from different companies, enhances the chance of the feeder grabbing the correct bag when making the load. Mistakes can be made with bulk or bagged ingredients, but there seems to be a little more accountability with bags.

Track those bags

I had a client that was concerned that the feeders were not using the correct ingredient at the correct amount for a close-up cow ration. The mineral product was in a bag, and this allowed the manager to set out a few days’ worth of bags at a time to be sure they were used properly. The manager added an upright spike welded to a big disk as a place to put each day’s bags to ensure feeder compliance. It is not that the feeder wanted to necessarily cut corners, but on an important ingredient like close-up mineral supplements, making the process a little bit inconvenient actually made it easier to get it done right.

The question often comes up regarding how perfect the loading needs to be for bags. This depends on many things including load size, inclusion rate, number of animals fed per load, and so forth.

  • If the feeding software calls for 139 pounds, should the feeder put in three whole bags?
  • Should there be some hanging scales and a 5-gallon bucket in the area where the bags are stored?

There is probably no hard right or wrong here. But with fine-tuned ingredients, it is important to get the right amount. Perhaps using half bags is a good rule. The hanging scale is always better but rounding to the closest 25 pounds could be reasonable. Many of these ingredients are of no value if overfed. So, keep that in mind if the tendency is to always round up.

Not a precise science

Using the mixer wagon scales for these low-inclusion ingredients is problematic in general and care should be taken to set them up correctly in the feeding software. The movement in the scale based on things like wind and simply the motion from the power takeoff can move the scale to a larger degree than the amount called for on the screen or the paper. These issues need to be considered.

There is no perfect solution, so a plan needs to be made for each small ingredient on each farm. Training and retraining are necessary. And as mentioned before, the accounting for accurate loading is much easier by counting bag inventory on a weekly or at least monthly basis.

So, what is the right answer for bags or no bags?

It just depends, but I think opening up to the idea of judicious use of bags on even a large dairy is encouraged. It will often be a good way to target ingredients and technology to specific groups of cows and helps manage cost by reducing the risk of overloading costly ingredients. As with anything, there is a limit, and the more bagged ingredients there are in a single feeding area, the higher this risk for mistakes.

Take care to not have bags designed for heifers in the same feeding area where lactating rations are prepared. The largest concern here would be any bags with ingredients cleared for heifers or beef animals but not lactating cows.

Consider the use of a different colored bag or at least different colored tags to aid the feeders in grabbing the correct one. Using a daily system to neatly stack each day’s bags will allow for accurate spot checks at the end of each feeding day. Perhaps the feeding manager can be the one to take the day’s bags to the dumpster and have a checklist to ensure the empty bags reflect accurate feeding.

In general, we need to keep feeding areas as simple as possible. But adding complications like extra bulk ingredients or specialty ingredients in bags can likely reduce feed cost or allow for enhancements in cow health or milk production. Careful management of this part of the dairy will have an overall positive impact for the profitability of the farm.

To comment, email your remarks to intel@hoards.com.
(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2023
February 20, 2023
Subscribe to Hoard's Dairyman Intel by clicking the button below