Do's and Don'ts of Feed Rations During Low Milk Prices

Do's and Don'ts of Feed Rations During Low Milk Prices
3/1/2018

Milk peaks and persistency may suffer, reproductive efficiency may decline, and health and vet costs could increase. Taking shortcuts is not in a producer’s best interests given the well-documented link between good nutrition and dairy cow health and productivity.

Savings may be found in many feeding programs, but these are not always made by buying the cheapest feeds and ingredients. Make wise decisions when selecting ingredients and additives to add or drop from your rations. Profitability is usually improved by feeding for increased milk production, even during periods of low milk prices. Cutting waste is most important.

Even when milk prices are low, cows should be fed a properly balanced ration that allows them to reach their genetic potential for milk and component production to maximize profitability. Profitability may be improved by increasing milk income and holding feed costs in line.

The diet should provide sufficient energy and protein for maximum milk yield, allow optimum ruminal fermentation and supply adequate minerals and vitamins to maintain health and reproduction.

Here are some important do’s and don’ts to consider during periods of low milk prices.

It’s easy to feel helpless when milk prices fall sharply. However, there are many things a dairyman can do with their feeding programs to maintain profitability or minimize losses. These do’s include:

  • Maximize use of quality home-grown forages and grains to lower feed costs by reducing the use of purchased feeds. Proper timing of harvest to achieve the optimum digestibility and yield, and appropriate storage to protect and maintain quality and reduce dry matter losses, is necessary to take full advantage of home-grown ingredients.

  • Include affordable byproducts but keep an eye on nutrient quality and consistency. Many byproduct commodities can be quite variable in nutrient content, and frequent testing is needed to be certain they fit properly in your feeding program.

    Ask your feed supplier what quality assurance programs they have in place to ensure nutrient content as well as protection from mycotoxins, pathogenic bacteria, drug residues and other potential hazards. You can lower the risk of nutrient variation of the diet associated with byproducts simply by incorporating multiple ingredients in the ration. Consider using blended commodities in the diet rather than depending upon relatively large amounts of individual byproducts.

  • Minimize shrink. Shrink is the feed you’ve purchased or harvested that never gets into the cow … it’s simply wasted. This can include dry matter losses from poorly stored silage, excessive feed refusals, wind-blown feed, broken bags, excessive overfeeding, inaccurate mixing and many other types of waste.

  • Maximize premium bonuses. Although proper sanitation and milking protocols are most important for maintaining milk quality, feeding programs can be developed to help maintain a strong immune system to help combat mastitis and lower somatic cell count. Such programs include appropriate concentrations of vitamins and trace minerals as well as the inclusion of proven feed additives.

  • Feed for components. Most U.S. milk markets pay for milkfat, protein and other solids, not fluid milk alone. Be sure your feeding program is effective in maintaining or maximizing milk component yields to help maximize income.

    A key strategy for increasing milk components is to ensure optimum ruminal fermentation with the proper balance of fibrous and non-fibrous carbohydrates, along with high-quality rumen-degradable and undegradable proteins.

  • Reconsider the use of one-group TMRs. Although one-group TMRs can provide significant labor savings in some herds, those savings may not be enough when milk prices drop. These rations are typically designed to meet the needs of the highest-producing, early lactation cows, which can be wasteful when fed to mid- and late-lactation animals and may result in excessive body condition due to energy and protein supplied beyond the animals’ needs.

  • Evaluate continued use of feed additives. Additives that made sense when milk prices were high may not look so good when prices drop. Spending 20 cents to make an extra pound of milk is wise when milk is $25 per hundredweight but not at $15 per hundredweight.

    There are many additives that are effective, but their benefits are not always cumulative. Use products known to work consistently across a broad range of feeding programs and systems. Use only scientifically tested and proven feed additives. Keep in mind; many additives are included to help improve health and reproduction.

    Although their removal may not have an immediate impact on milk yield, they can affect production in the future.Milk prices are cyclical, and low prices will rebound, eventually leading to higher milk prices. Don’t sacrifice future performance, which will hurt overall profitability just months ahead. Some important things you don’t want to do during periods of low milk prices include:

  • Cut back on transition feeding programs. Specialized rations for cows immediately before and after calving can get expensive, but the payback on an effective transition cow feeding and management program can be high.

    These special diets, fed for a short time to a limited number of animals, can result in significantly lower veterinary costs, improved fertility and higher peak milk yield (with each pound of peak milk leading to 200 to 250 pounds of milk produced over the entire lactation).

  • Scrimp on replacement animal rations. It’s tempting to cut back on heifer feeding programs since these animals do not contribute directly to milk income. Although it’s smart to reduce excesses in replacement feeding programs, it is unwise to make changes that will slow heifer growth, which can delay their entry into the milking herd or reduce first-lactation milk yield.

    This includes young calves, since it has been shown each pound of average daily gain prior to weaning results in 850 pounds more milk during the first lactation.

  • Sacrifice reproductive performance. No matter what the price of milk is, it remains critically important to have cows begin cycling early, be bred successfully and complete pregnancy with delivery of a healthy calf. Each additional day open adds significant cost to the dairy operation.

    Cows need a sound transition feeding and management program to avoid metabolic and infectious diseases after calving that can lower fertility. They need adequate energy and appropriate balance of proteins to maintain proper body condition so they cycle properly and produce a sound egg and embryo. Animals need to be provided with feed free of, or protected from, compounds that can lead to early loss of pregnancy or abortion. Saving money by cutting back in any of these areas will cost the dairy operation far into the future.

Savings can be found in many feeding programs, but these are not always made by buying the cheapest feed and ingredients. Make wise decisions when selecting ingredients and additives to add or drop from your rations.

Profitability is usually improved by feeding for increased milk production, even during periods of low milk prices. Be careful not to cut too much from your feeding program in order to save money today that you risk sacrificing current and future milk production and profits.

Work with your nutrition adviser to develop a sound, cost-effective feeding program using the latest ingredient costs and analyses. New dairy modeling software allows nutritionists to design not only “least-cost” feeding programs but also diets balanced to provide the best return on your feed investment.

Of course, these do’s and don’ts make sense to follow during periods of high milk prices, as well as low prices, to maximize profitability. However, there is more pressure to follow these strategies when lower milk margins are available. 

David Kirk for Progressive Dairyman Published February 2018

Tags: Feeding Strategies, Milk Prices