Declutter Your Dairy Ration to Save Money | Focus on Feed

horizontal ruleRegardless of the type of dairy barn you have, there are many opportunities to declutter your dairy ration, putting more money in your pocket and simplifying your life.  Ration clutter comes in many forms, such as multiple protein and starch sources, overfeeding minerals, redundant feeds and antagonizing ingredients.  Clutter can slowly creep into your rations over many years.  For example, your hoof trimmer might request adding biotin or zinc.  Your vet might request doubling selenium or vitamin E, or your feed adviser might suggest including mycotoxin binder.

Perfect is not necessary, but 90% is good enough.

While decades of research have nearly perfected nutritional models, not every cow in Canada is meeting her genetic potential for milk production.  Meeting full potential requires ideal forage and grains, good health and the right environment.  Trying to achieve a perfect ration is not only expensive, but time consuming.  A farmer striving for perfection still may not be achieving the cow’s full genetic potential because of other overlooked factors, such as lameness, missed breedings or uncomfortable stalls.  In any case, farm managers should strive for find the biggest bottlenecks before trying to perfect another aspect of the farm.

Feed cost accounts for a large portion of your monthly milk cheque.  Top farms can spend 25-30% of their milk sales on their lactating herd’s feed, but many linger around 35-40%.  Feed cost as a percentage of milk sales is an excellent way to gauge competitiveness.  You can calculate your herd’s performance here.

Follow these strategies to declutter your ration and save money:

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Remove Protein Ingredients

Multiple protein sources in a lactating diet may not be needed.  From a nutritional perspective, meeting protein requirements involves providing adequate rumen degradable protein and metabolizable protein.  One or two sources of protein can come close to meeting this need when diets are based on grass and legumes.  Canola meal and soybean meal are high in crude protein, supply lysine and are easily available.  Choose one of these as the primary protein source in your ration.  A second protein source, such as corn or wheat distiller grains, is often fed to provide additional amino acids, energy or improve ration palatability.  High levels of milk production can be achieved with only one or two protein sources.

Limit the number of starch sources

When rations contain corn silage, one additional starch may be all that’s needed.  Barley, wheat or corn (high moisture or dry) should be considered.  Calculating the cost per unit of starch from these sources should be the top consideration.  Table 1 shows a comparison of commonly fed starch sources and the impact of cost per tonne on the cost per unit of starch.  There may be little value in providing a third source of dietary starch unless there are quality issues, such as poor processing or mould.  Also, the use of homegrown or locally-purchased starch sources should be maximized only if cost per tonne permits.

Cut straw out

When manure becomes too soft or butterfat declines, straw is often added to increase ration fibre and reduce acidosis.  Straw is often a purchased ingredient priced between $150-$300/MT.  Its benefits should be heavily weighted against other long-term solutions.  When feeding low fibre legume or brown midrib corn silage (BMR), it may be hard to provide adequate fibre.  Look at other ways to reduce acidosis, such as preventing empty feed mangers, adding water or reducing particle size to mitigate sorting.  Increasing dietary fibre with more good-quality forage is another option.  Mid-maturity grass silage (ADF of 33-35%) provides excellent effective fibre and is a good way to improve cud chewing.  Straw can also be reduced in controlled-energy dry cow diets (Goldilocks diet) by replacing it with mature, low potassium grass silage.  Examples of such grass are reed canary grass, timothy or any other thick stem perennial grass.

Drop “nice to haves”

There may be justified situations where ingredients are in the diet, but look at feed additives in your cows’ diet to determine what is a must have versus a nice to have.   Ingredients such as buffers, organic minerals, yeast products and toxin binders are some examples.  Feeding higher than required levels of vitamin E can cost up to $0.20/cow/day.  If vitamin E was added to reduce somatic cell count, then it is worth considering other preventative measures.  The cost of toxin binders can range from $0.10-0.20/cow/day.  Therefore, feeds should be tested for toxins on a regular basis to determine if toxin binders are really needed every year.

Drop antagonist feeds

There are many examples of antagonistic feed ingredients, or in other words, ingredients added to the diet because of the use of another feed that’s causing a detrimental response.  Feeding palmitic acid at high levels (500gr/cow) to counter a milk fat depression caused by the use of high levels of corn distiller grains is one common example.  Another example is using straw or high levels of buffer to prevent milk fat depression because of very low fibre forage.  In both cases, management improvements could be made.  Focusing on haylage maturity and species is the best way to reduce cost and number of ingredients.

Taking steps to declutter your ration can be rewarding.  It can save time related to negotiations, ordering and inventory management, as well as result in less shrinkage and diet cost reductions.  Focusing on 90% right versus perfect is a good management skill not only in rations, but also in another other aspect ions of your operations.

Other considerations

  • Focus on milk urea nitrogen (MUN) to minimize supplemental protein.  Aim for a MUN level of 8-10 in the bulk tank.  Reduce protein when MUN is more than 10.  This allows more room in the diet for forage or starch.
  • Test manure starch content to determine if starch sources are adequately processed.  You should aim for 3% or less manure starch. If you have more than 5%, then finer grind or rolling is needed.
  • Score the manure in your milking herd.  On a scale of 1-5, where 1 is diarrhea, 3 is perfect and 5 is like horse manure, aim to have most cos around 3.  If there is variability, then sorting is an issue.  If most are scoring 4, then there is opportunity for more ration energy density or protein.
  • Take a look at the mineral contribution of protein feeds, such as canola meal, when formulating an optimized diet.  The savings can be significant.  Also, take a look at the diet levels of expensive minerals. Overfeeding these nutrients can cost thousands per year on a typical dairy farm.

Table 1 - Evaluating the cost per unit of starch for typical grain sources

Grain$/Tonne% Starch% Dry matter$/tonne of starch dry matter
High moisture corn1507265321






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