The author has a dairy nutrition consulting business, Paradox Nutrition, LLC, in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Feeding commodities presents a challenge of maintaining quality and controlling wastage or shrink of feed commodities on the farm.

With the current milk prices, people are looking to cut back on feed costs. As a nutrition consultant, my job is to suggest the best ways to do this.

There really is no easy answer; nor is there one answer for everybody. Often, dairy producers end up just pushing on their feed company representative to get the cost per ton of their grain down. Obviously, you want to make sure that you don't have something in your grain that is not paying for itself. But, if this is your only focus, you probably will not get very far, and you may end up saving a nickel but losing a dime in the long run.

Target your TMR . . .
Are you feeding a one-group TMR to all of your milking cows? Or are you feeding one complete feed to all of the milking cows in your barn? Maybe now is the time to ask "Why?" It still may be the right thing to do, but it may not be. Last week, I priced out a feed program with a high and low production group and saved $1 per cow per day by feeding the low cows their own TMR with a different low-cow grain.

With target feeding, the goal is to give cows the nutrition that they need but no more than they need. Early-lactation cows usually will respond profitably to a higher quality diet balanced for amino acids, with higher levels of fat, and with proven feed additives. If you take these more expensive ingredients out of their diet, be prepared for lower peaks and more breeding problems.

Late-lactation cows easily can maintain their milk production on a more basic diet. They need fewer nutrients to support their level of milk.

With careful diet balancing, as well as cautious pen movements, you can control production drops when you switch cows from a high- to a low-production group. However, there is the social impact that you cannot do much about aside from trying not to overcrowd pens.

Generally, for low-group diets, I still try to support more milk from protein than the group is averaging. If the group is averaging 60 pounds per cow per day, I still make sure that I have enough protein to support 65 or 70 pounds. I also try not to make too big of a change in diet NDF levels, perhaps boosting forage in the diet by only 5 percentage points.

If you have a tie stall barn and one complete grain mix that you feed by the scoop around the barn, you may think that you can't do more to better target feed your cows. But, have you ever thought about finding a way to handle a second grain that would contain the expensive ingredients and which you could topdress just to your early-lactation cows? It might even be economical to purchase such a grain in bags if it allowed you to save a significant amount of money on your regular grain.

Often, farms purchase a separate energy supplement (like cornmeal) and a separate protein supplement with minerals and additives and use both in different rations for the milking cows. This makes sense if you are getting a great deal on straight cornmeal (or other energy source). But, if you only have two bins for grain on the farm and this strategy is forcing you to feed some higher quality ingredients and additives to your low cows, you might want to reconsider this approach. It may make more sense to combine your energy and protein sources and have a complete feed for the high cows and another complete feed for the low cows. You won't know until you run the numbers.

During times of high feed prices, it is essential that nutritionists work even harder to find the most economical feed ingredients to meet cows' nutrient needs. Remember that cows require nutrients and not necessarily the same feed ingredients that have always been fed in the past. Routine optimization of the ration using current feed ingredient prices is crucial. Both large and small dairy farms can reduce feed costs by purchasing some feed ingredients as commodities and mixing them into a TMR.

Feeding commodities presents more of a challenge to you. Delivered product must be good quality, and this quality must be maintained as feed is stored on the farm. You also must control wastage or shrink of feed commodities on the farm, and the cost associated with it should not be overlooked. Feed ingredients must be palatable, not damaged by weather, and free of molds, bacteria, and trash. It's not worth the risk to feed a bad load of any ingredient.

You need to know your suppliers, measure bushel weights, visually inspect all incoming loads, and routinely test samples at a laboratory. Incoming feed ingredients need to have a known and consistent nutrient profile, and they need to be processed correctly. Certain feed ingredients have more consistency issues than others.

Don't waste starch . . .
With tight margins, dietary starch digestion needs to be as complete as possible. Your goal should be to have no visible passage of grain in the manure. Some people find it helpful to wash manure to screen out the grain contained in it. Some nutritionists send manure samples to a laboratory to analyze for starch content. My general rule is that, if I see grain in manure after I kick my boot through it, there is too much. Adequate fiber length for good rumen mat formation helps to slow passage of grain for a more complete digestion.

Grinding increases the amount of surface area that the rumen microbes can attach to. Thus, grinding improves starch digestibility. It has been recommended that 67 percent of cornmeal should pass through a kitchen flour sifter (~1.18 mm). This equates to an average particle size of 1,100 microns. High-moisture corn should be rolled prior to feeding if it is 28 to 32 percent moisture, but it should be ground to a smaller particle size if it has less than 25 percent moisture.

Proper corn silage dry matter and processing at harvest is essential so that corn silage kernels are fully digested. You must make every effort to ensure that corn silage is fermented for four months prior to feeding to make certain that the starch is available to the cow.

For long-term profitability, you need highly digestible forages. Better genetics and improved forage harvesting and storage have helped to improve NDF digestibility on many dairy farms. Highly digestible forages help you reduce grain levels in the ration. This improves rumen health and reduces ration costs. With typical Northeastern U.S. forages, I balance high production rations with 24 to 25 percent forage NDF. But, with highly digestible forages, often I can meet energy needs and control acidosis better with 26 to 27 percent forage NDF. Those of you who are feeding highly digestible forage may have high production diets containing as much as 65 percent forage. Obviously, this can make a huge difference in the farm's bottom line.

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