High Feed Prices, Low Milk Prices - What Can You Do?

Current economic conditions are causing intense frustration throughout the dairy industry, writes Bob James, Extension Dairy Scientist, Virginia University.
calendar icon 24 June 2012
clock icon 3 minute read

There are many items over which you have no control, but there ARE things that you can control—both from an income and expense perspective. Our five year study of feed management illustrated many opportunities which exist to improve income over feed cost. Too often dairy producers make the mistake of assuming that a good nutritionist will fix all of their problems to assure high milk production at a low cost per cwt. It’s up to the dairy manager to ensure that the recommendations are carried out. Focus on these three items to improve the accuracy of the feeding program.

  1. Test forages monthly regardless of the herd size. This costs between $32 and $150 depending on the sophistication of the analyses requested. This sounds expensive, but the alternative is far more costly.
  2. For a typical 150 cow dairy in Virginia, $150 amounts to $.03 / cow / month. Reducing soybean meal overfeeding by .13 lb. per cow or increasing milk yield by 0.16 lb. per cow would offset this expense.
  3. Measure silage dry matters at least weekly or whenever one detects a change in feed quality. Dry matter can be determined on the farm with a Koster tester, microwave oven, or food dehydrator—all equipment with a minimal expense. The impact of moisture on ration balance can be large. If one assumes a herd is fed 70 lb. of corn silage / cow / day at 38% DM a reduction to 32% DM results in 3.2 Mcal less energy and 0.34 lb. less protein. For a 1400 lb. cow producing milk with 3.5% fat that’s about 6.5 lb. less milk or $1.17 less income per day.


  4. Improve feeding accuracy. The phosphorous incentive program studied eight farms which implemented the use of feed management software and a new indicator for their mix wagons. This enabled managers to download feeding instructions and to monitor how accurately the feeder loaded ingredients and delivered the rations. Use of this technology resulted in the best managers achieving accuracy within 1% of that specified by the nutritionist. In contrast, we found that feeders and managers who did not use the technology very well deviated from the specified rations by more than 8%.

    The challenge is that in some cases feeders underfed key ingredients and overfed other ingredients. The result is that cows are either underfed and produce less milk the next day or overfed key ingredients, thus wasting feed.

    This technology would cost between $4,000 and $6,000. Again, this sounds expensive until one considers that our example 150 cow dairy with 50 lb. of dry matter intake per cow costing $.16/lb. spends $1200 / day on feed alone. Reducing overfeeding by 1 lb. of dry matter would enable a payoff of the investment in less than seven months. Additional benefits of higher milk yield accrue with less daily variation in ration composition.

These three items require a commitment by the manager to adopt routine practices of forage analyses and monitoring of dry matter. Feed management software and hardware with proven success on dairies includes: (in alphabetical order) EZ Feed, Feed Supervisor, Feed Watch and TMR Tracker.

June 2012

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