Re-Thinking the Basics During Periods of High Feed Costs

Guaranteeing that our high performing cattle receive all the nutrients they need is a high priority and an area that should not be compromised. The way in which we deliver those nutrients is an opportunity for us to maximize efficiency.

1) Crude protein vs. amino acids

A classic example of this concept is the evolution of protein nutrition in dairy cattle. Cows don't have a crude protein (CP) requirement; rather, they require the building blocks of proteins, called "amino acids." Before nutritionists understood the dynamics of protein utilization, providing a cow with a 17-18% CP diet was a good strategy to cover most of the amino acids a cow needed. However, this feeding strategy usually results in the excessive feeding of protein, which is an expensive nutrient ( especially in today's market). Feeding to meet amino acid requirements not only makes for a more cost effective diet, but as an additional benefit, it reduces nitrogen excretion, which contributes to a more sustainable agricultural ecosystem. Table 1 presents a comparison of two diets formulated for the same cow; one diet is based on CP, while the other is based on amino acid balancing.

2) The role of rumen modifiers

Feeding cattle is exciting and challenging, because we are not only feeding a "cow" but we are feeding the rumen microbes, which in turn feed the cow. The rumen is a very interactive environment, and the efficiency of nutrient conversion in the rumen is a great contributor to the efficiency of nutrient utilization by the cow. The use of rumen modifiers and yeast cultures change the efficiency of nutrient utilization in the rumen. NEWTON, a dynamic energy model, is the only nutrition modeling software in the world to include the effects of rumen modifiers in a dynamic system that accurately accounts for the efficiency of use of different feedstuffs. The addition of rumen modifiers to the diet will often reduce the cost/cow/day of dairy rations. Table 2 presents four different diets formulated for the same cow with the addition of rumen modifiers in NEWTON.

3) Battling shrinkage

A strategy that may seem obvious, but that is often overlooked, is to decrease the amount of feed that is lost through shrinkage. This is easy to overlook since it is difficult to quantify, but feed shrink affects all ingredients on farm. For example, bunk silos can have up to 20% shrink-age; a realistic goal for bunk silo shrink should be around 8%. Some of the management practices that can help achieve this goal are using a defacer, increasing packing density, covering the bunk [ all of the bunk], and using inoculants. Many of these practices may have an associated cost, but it is important to analyze the numbers. If the shrink is reduced from 20% to 8% in a 1,000-ton corn silage bunk silo, an extra 120 tons of corn silage can be saved, which equates to a total savings of at least $6,600/bunk.

As previously mentioned, forages are not the only feeds affected by shrink. Commodity ingredients normally stored in sheds will experience 5-10% shrinkage while this is closer to 1-3% for upright silos. A practical conside-ration is to place more expensive ingredients in proper bins. To estimate the benefit of buying a bin for your commodities, consider the following: A dairy operation purchasing 300 tons of distiller/year and storing this ingredient in a commodity shed could experience a 10% shrink rate, which would translate to a loss of 30 tons of distillers, equating to over $10,000. Reducing the shrink to 2% would "save" 24 tons of distillers/year for a net savings of $8,160/year.

3) Moving from pellets to mash

Another "easy fix" to reduce feed cost is to use mash feeds instead of pellets. Mash feeds allow for more flexibility in ingredient choice at the time of formulating the ration as compared to added restrictions that are required in manufacturing a good pellet. This increased flexibility will lead to a more appropriate selection of ingredients when least-cost formulating. Table 3 compares the cost of a mash diet vs. a pelleted diet formulated for the same cow.

A more extreme measure, but one that must be considered during times of feed and forage shortage, is reducing the number of animals on farm. There are two groups of animals that should be revised when considering reducing the animals fed on farm.

4) Consider culling

The first group of animals to consider is low-producing lactating cattle. Under most conditions, a cow must be producing 20 kg/day to pay for herself in today's economics. Any lactating animal producing less than 20 kg/day should be evaluated to either be dried off if she is over seven months' pregnant or culled. Even though this may imply less milk in the tank, it will represent higher profits for the farm. This will free up space in the barn and reduce stocking density, which may cause the remaining cows to increase milk production to compensate for the milk loss from culled cows. 

The other group of animals to consider is growing heifers. A typical dairy operation will often raise all heifers and will have over 100 growing heifers for every 100 cows in the herd. For dairies with established numbers of animals, raising additional heifers is a very expensive luxury. There are several strategies that will allow a producer to safely reduce the number of heifers that need to be raised at the farm. Firstly, reducing age at first calving is an excellent example of how to save feed and improve efficiency. Secondly, reducing the non-completion rate, by reducing the number of heifers that die or are culled before calving allows producers to raise fewer heifers. Another way to reduce your heifer inventory is to reduce the culling rate of the milking herd as the need for more heifers is reduced. Table 4 shows the number of heifers needed to maintain herd size at various age at first calving and with different culling rates.