In recent years, feed costs have represented more than 60 percent of the cost of producing milk, and feed prices have been high relative to the sale price of milk.

Now that milk prices are finally on the rise, so are inputs, especially corn, which is not good news for dairy farmers.

When you consider dairy enterprises have had incomes below the cost of production for the last couple of years, no wonder dairy producers are asking, “What can I do to keep feed costs down in the upcoming year?”

So the fact that escalating feed costs are changing how dairy managers are feeding their cows and heifers, or at least they are stepping back and re-evaluating their feeding programs, is no surprise. Corn, soybean meal and other grains almost have doubled in price due, in part, to decreasing supplies and increasing domestic and foreign demand.

Without exception, doing the following is prudent:

  • Analyze forages on a monthly, or at least quarterly, basis, and then use these results to balance rations. As forage quality improves, less grain and more forage can be fed.
  • Look for alternative sources to improve the economics of the feeding program without sacrificing milk production. The Feed Val spreadsheet program from the University of Wisconsin (http://www.uwex.edu/ces/dairynutrition/spreadsheets.cfm) allows the user to enter the current prices of corn and soybean meal and calculate the relative feed value of various grains and byproducts.
  • Discuss other possible feeding strategies with your nutritionist. Communication among all parties involved will help avoid or quickly correct misunderstandings.

However, the basics of feeding management practices should not be overlooked; they need to be repeated on a daily basis. Cows like consistency and respond to comfortable surroundings, routine management practices and well-managed feeding programs. Such practices do not require cash, but they do require attention to the details, such as:

  • Feeding and milking cows on a set schedule
  • Ensuring that plenty of clean, cool water is always available
  • Cleaning waterers with a weak chlorine bleach solution regularly
  • Providing fresh feed at least twice daily, especially in the summer
  • Reducing wasted feed, with only a small amount of feed (4 percent) left in the feed bunk to ensure timid and early lactation cows also get adequate feed
  • Making sure to provide enough bunk space for all cows to eat at once and enough extra space for the timid animals to get their share when cows are limit-fed hay or other forages
  • Cleaning out the feed bunk daily, especially in the summer, because feed heats quickly and, once spoiled, will decrease feed intake and milk production
  • Providing adequate bunk space (30 to 36 inches per cow/heifer) and feed stall space (90 percent maximum stocking rate) for fresh and early lactation cows as well as cows within three weeks of calving because these cows are the money makers
  • Ensuring cows are comfortable with clean, bedded stalls that entice cows to lie down, rest and chew their cuds
  • Providing fans and intermittent sprinklers over the feed bunk and holding pen before hot weather arrives
  • Considering multiple feeding groups for high- and low-producing cows, first-calf heifers and mature cows to more accurately target feed resources
  • Remembering that the dry cows and heifers are the future of the dairy herd

When evaluating the costs of a potential ration, ask whether the ration will maximize profits or just save dollars on your feed bill. Will this grain mix and resulting ration use your feed dollars wisely and maintain milk production, health and reproductive performance of the herd? The costs of a concentrate mix and ration need to be evaluated based on the ration’s potential to return dollars above feed costs (milk income per cow minus feed cost per cow), not just the cost of the grain mix.

Can cows eat $8 corn? Yes, just fine, but they may not need every pound they are getting. The only way to know is to work with your nutritionist, get those forages tested and implement your best animal husbandry skills. The bottom line is: Don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish.

Make sure you do not compromise production to save a few dollars on your feed bill because that will end up costing you more in the long run from lost milk revenues.