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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Preparing your feeding program for lower milk prices

Dairy Pipeline: June 2006

Robert E. James
Extension Dairy Scientist, Dairy Nutrition
(540) 231-4770; email:

Feeding involves many decisions that impact both income and expenses, especially when milk prices are low. The first reaction might be to reduce supplement feeding as this is the largest purchased expense for most farms. However, its impact on income might be greater than the savings realized. The dairy business can learn a great deal from the feedlot business. Notably, the tight profit margins in feedlots have demanded that feed managers become shrewd business persons. Following are some feedlot tips that could well apply to the dairy feeding program.

  1. Closely examine all additives in the ration, particularly those high in daily cost, whose benefits are not supported by documented research.
  2. Feedlots focus on the five "R"s for good feed management. They are:

Right Feed -- Ration formulation is only as good as the information provided to the nutritionist. Allocate the best forages to the transition and high producing herds. Measure dry matter % on at least a weekly basis for all fermented and wet by-product feeds. (This can be accomplished by using a Koster tester or a microwave oven.) Make ration adjustments to maintain the desired dry matter intake.

Right pen -- Providing the best feeding environment is essential. Feed bunks should be protected from the effects of sun, rain and excessive heat. Soakers are recommended during the heat of the summer. Clean up refusals every day and remove spoiled feed. Cleaning of water tanks on a daily (or every other day) basis is encouraged.

Right amount -- Most dairies feed for 5 - 10% refusal which encourages DMI for the milking herd but results in a significant amount of refusal that must be discarded. (Remember, refusals fed to the heifer can spread diseases such as Johne's.) Many feedlots feed to a clean bunk with cattle consuming the last amount within an hour of the next feeding. This is challenging and requires a feed manager/bunk manager adept at predicting intake patterns of the herd.

Right time -- Cattle thrive on consistency. Feeding groups within minutes of the same time each day is critical. This also applies to other areas of the operation such as milking and lot scraping.

Right way -- A key to promoting intake and digestive health is reducing variability. Rations should be mixed in the same order each time and delivered in a uniform manner down the bunk. Dairies should evaluate particle size through spot checks on a weekly basis to make sure that mixing time is not too long or short. Accurate delivery of the TMR requires experience to prevent wasteful pile-ups of TMR at the end of the bunk.

The "R"s listed above may seem like common sense but are critical to achieving consistency in a feeding program. Excessive variability in rations leads to DA's, ketosis and other metabolic disorders which rob cows of high peak milk and lactation yield.

Adapted from: Dr. O Abe Turgeon. A Feedlot Consultant’s Perspective on Feeding and Milling. 2006 High Plains Dairy Conference. March 2006

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