From start to finish, building rations for dairy cows is accomplished with a range of precision. Consider that the last step of mixing is done in thousands of pounds on the farm. The earliest steps in the process are closer to what you might experience while baking a cake from scratch in your kitchen with small cups, bowls, and a countertop mixer. While loader buckets and mixer boxes on the dairy get bigger and bigger, the initial steps of ration formulation remain mostly steady and small. Starting with the micro-ingredient blending, small amounts of highly concentrated nutrients are carefully added to small, prebatch type mixes and staged for further blending up the line. It is a complicated process.

If you wanted to build a risky system using scores of ingredients, various mix sizes, and perplexing units of concentration in some incongruent mix of the metric system and imperial units (the U.S. style) that was set up for failure, you would build something like what we work with in the micro-ingredients formulation process. For those of us that grew up in the U.S. in the latter parts of the 20th century, you might remember your teachers telling you that by the time you were an adult, the U.S. would be fully on the metric system. Those predictions were mostly wrong, but in animal nutrition, it is like the process of the changeover got inexplicitly stuck somewhere in the middle. I even occasionally see an ingredient in this space that will have a metric unit in the numerator and an imperial unit in the denominator. This is crazy.

The most unusual unit that best explains this is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guideline for approved monensin inclusion for lactating cows. It is stated in grams of monensin per ton of dry matter intake. Say that again? This is a unique fraction indeed. A similar regulatory comment often used suggests an amount of an ingredient that should be added in a mix to meet a specific pounds per ton of finished feed. I am honestly not even sure what that means. The various vitamin concentrations are no better. In addition to some vitamins being discussed in thousands of international units (KIU) and some simply in international units (IU), one must pay close attention! At the same time that all of these units and concentrations are all over the place, in some instances, we discuss these in a concentration basis like grams per pound or parts per million (ppm), and at other times we discuss in grams or milligrams per head per day.

Most of the discussion thus far has related to nutrients like vitamins and trace minerals. Concurrent with this formulation math is the inclusion of many options for things like feed technologies and additives. In this list are gut health products, direct fed microbials, binders, yeast products, rumen modifiers, methane reducers, and more. None of these have feed rates that are driven by nutrient requirements like minerals and vitamins. These are included based on manufacturers suggested feed rates. This seems a little bit problematic. Are we dosing the animal based on body weight, the diet-based intake, or some other approach? Likewise, the recommended feed rates often feel antiquated when they are commonly expressed in ounces per cow per day. I can’t find anywhere in my ration software where I can enter ounces, or even grams for that matter. So, remembering that there are 16 ounces in a pound and 454 grams in a pound comes in handy. Thank goodness a big block Chevy in the old days was 454 cubic inches! At least that helps me remember grams per pound.

The people make it happen

Now that I have sufficiently convinced you that this process is complicated and math-heavy, now enter the human factor. As is usual, communication is critical, and everything must be documented. Mistakes happen and the value of another set of eyes cannot be overstated. In what is a mostly invisible role to dairy producers, there is a very important individual at each feed and mineral company that is the cog in this wheel. The role is generally described as a formulator, and I can’t overstate how important these individuals are.

In most feed and mineral companies, the front-facing people are in sales and perhaps sales management. Also, it is obvious that there is a plant manager and quality control staff that make the magic happen in the mill. Hidden between all of these is the formulator. At times, this individual has an advanced degree in nutrition and in other instances, they do not. In my experience, this fact does not make or break a person to be effective in this role. The two most important qualities of a successful formulator, in my opinion, are attention to detail and excellent communication skills. As well, you can’t be bad at math and be a good formulator. Your days are filled with numbers that have significance in a successful nutrition program. Over the years, I have worked with some really good formulators that I count as friends. At times, it is almost near constant communication with these folks that are the conduit between my nutrition model and a mixing process in a feed or mineral facility.

When a nutritionist sends a formula to a feed or mineral company, there are basically two ways to communicate the information. The first option is to send nutrient specifications. In this approach, the company formulator has a list of nutrient levels to meet. There may be some directives on further details for some nutrients that would determine the sources or maybe particular product choices. For instance, the copper spec may be listed with the further detail that 20% of this copper needs to come from sources with improved availability like chelates and proteinates. Type or forms of nutrients that are known to have lower value to the animal might be listed as not approved in the formula. In this situation, the company formulator will likely use the most convenient or best value source of each ingredient that is in current inventory.

The second method of communication is where the nutritionist sends the actual recipe to the company formulator. In this instance, there are often conversations back and forth to clear up any differences in options for ingredients matching the feed mill’s inventory. There is a give and take here as it is reasonable to not expect every feed mill to have every conceivable ingredient.

The best option in my experience is to use a combination of the two methods above where a recipe is provided along with the nutrient specs. One place where the relationship between the nutritionist and the formulator is helpful relates to a working knowledge of allowable substitutions based mostly on differing concentrations of vitamins and certain trace minerals. There are also some product choices that, where flexibility can be offered, will help the process along. It is to the benefit of the dairy producer who will eventually buy the product to allow some flexibility on various points in the process such that the company can offer a competitive price.

Check the details

I had two main goals in choosing this topic for an article. First, I wanted to offer a quick look behind the curtain into how mineral, vitamin, and additive supplements are designed from start to finish. It is a complicated process that is filled with potential potholes and an area in which every “t” should be crossed and every “i” dotted. Then, check it all again! Nutritionists should also lean on the value of an extra set of eyes to help catch mistakes. The reverse is true as well. After sending a formula to a mill, the norm is for the formulator to send it back in a document prepared from their formulation system. We must be sure all details match up.

The second goal in choosing this topic is to offer a sincere thank you to the many formulators that have helped me serve my clients over the many years. This is an important relationship to me, and my hope is to express my appreciation for teamwork on behalf of the producer. Feeding cows well is only accomplished when this process is well-defined and the relationships surrounding it are strong. It is to the benefit of both the feed/mineral company and the nutritionist to get all the details right with the hopeful result of healthy, productive, and profitable animals and good cost management.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
February 15, 2024
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