Amaral-Phillips is an extension professor with the University of Kentucky. Eastridge and Weiss are professors of animal science at The Ohio State University.

Before winter hits, evaluate these five pieces of your feeding program with your nutritionist to improve your feeding regime now and develop a cropping strategy.

Develop a plan
Determine if you need to purchase forages based on homegrown inventory. To devise this plan, submit representative samples to a forage testing laboratory for nutrient analysis. Forage samples taken at the beginning of the feeding season can serve as a starting place for balancing rations.

Throughout the year, take numerous samples (three to four), and combine their results to better describe the nutrient content of forages being fed. Single samples often do not accurately represent the nutrient content.

Concurrently, take an inventory of each forage and commodity in storage. With this information, you can allocate forages stored separately to the various groups of cattle. Reserve the highest quality forages (usually hay) for heifers less than 4 months of age and fresh, early-lactation or high-production groups of cows. You can also determine shortfalls so that forages can be purchased or other feedstuffs can be added to rations.

For example, if you have corn silage from three different hybrids but the hybrids are stored in a single bunker silo, you need to know you have 900 tons of corn silage instead of 300 tons of each hybrid. If each hybrid is stored in a separate bag, they can be considered separate feeds with 300 tons of each.

Balance rations
Using the inventory and forage analyses, balance rations for all groups of cattle on your dairy. Cows need nutrients, not ingredients, to support body maintenance, milk production and growth. Rations are balanced to provide these nutrients at the least cost. Various combinations of forages and other commodities can meet nutrient needs and may result in a cost savings.

Due to enhanced volatility in commodity prices, you should follow ingredient prices and reevaluate feeding programs frequently. In addition, changes in the amount of starch and protein need to be factored in when balancing rations. These changes, if incorporated correctly, may reduce feed costs with higher corn and soybean meal prices.

Diets for lactating cows, heifers and dry cows are balanced to provide a certain amount of each nutrient delivered based on dry matter levels. The dry matter content of each feed should be used to determine the amount of each ingredient.

For wet feeds, such as silages and wet commodities, dry matter contents can vary tremendously within storage structures, loads and with storage time. To account for this variation, dry matter contents of these feeds should be measured at least weekly, with changes made as necessary (2 to 5 percent change in dry matter) to the amount fed.

Review feeding practices

Review these practices with those responsible for feeding:

Provide lactating cows access to the feedbunk at least 20 hours daily but preferably 22 hours. Minimize the time away from feed to allow cows to eat multiple meals for optimum intake. This is especially important for fresh, early-lactation and high-producing dairy cows.

Cows should be fed a consistent ration at the same time each day. Feed should not be heating in the feedbunk and should be provided within the entire feed bunk at each feeding.

Uneaten feed should be routinely removed (usually daily) from the feedbunk. Milking cows should be fed for 1 to 2 percent refusals after a 24-hour feeding period. If you are feeding for a slick bunk at the time of feeding, the bunks have to be monitored throughout the day and feeding time adjusted accordingly.

Waterers should be cleaned out multiple times weekly and scrubbed once weekly with a brush and a weak chlorinated solution (1 cup of household bleach to 5 gallons of water). Rinse the chlorinated solution out after cleaning.

Adequate bunk and free stall space should be provided such that groups are not overcrowded. Ideally, 24 inches of bunk space should be provided to the milking herd (six-row barns may provide 18 inches per cow, less than ideal). For fresh and close-up dry cow groups, the recommendation is 36 inches per cow and one free stall or 100 square feet per cow.

TMR mixers need to be serviced and adjusted for the feeds being added. Check to make sure the TMR mixer is not overfilled, TMR mixtures are not over- or under-mixed, and ingredients are being added at the correct amounts and order for the mixer. The mixing quality of the TMR should be evaluated occasionally. Does the mix look the same over the length of the feedbunk? Was the forage particle size reduced too much by the mixer wagon?

Keep clean faces on bunkers, and maintain other silage storage structures to prevent heating and ensure that a high-quality feed is being fed.

Cows should be consuming a similar amount of feed as suggested in balanced rations. If not, discuss this observation with the nutritionist, who may wish to make adjustments. Daily or weekly refusals will need to be weighed to assess the consumption by the group of cows.

Work with consultants
To develop and modify the feeding and overall management program, work closely with your nutritionist and other consultants. Develop an ongoing relationship that results in dialog among all parties. It can help to improve your bottom line to discuss different ways to group, feed and manage your herd.

Sometimes, producers incorrectly believe that they do not need to oversee and understand feeding and nutritional concepts. Understanding these concepts is critical for dialog and to understand when and how to make minor adjustments or temporary changes.

Start making plans
Now is the time to evaluate whether to make changes to your cropping system or forage purchasing plans for next year. In the United States, various universities and agronomic companies conduct variety trials to see how new varieties of alfalfa, corn for silage and other crops yield in different environments and growing conditions. These results can be used to help select varieties that incorporate new genetic material into crops that best fit your operation.

Using your forage analyses, review whether your harvesting (or custom harvester's) techniques have resulted in the highest-quality forages needed to feed high-producing dairy cows and whether you need to make changes. Then, complete a plan to incorporate these changes into next year's cropping season.

Areas to evaluate include the varieties planted, timeliness of harvest, methods used to harvest and whether fertility was inappropriate for the planted crop.

This article appears on page 772 of the November 2012 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.