Dairy producers shouldn't get used to $7 corn, and should tailor diets to maximize productivity and profitability, an Ohio State University Extension expert says.
"There are two things to manage: feed costs and milk prices," said Extension dairy specialist Normand St-Pierre. "On the feed cost side, there is nothing that says you have to feed corn and soybeans because ruminants, and dairy cows in particular, can take advantage of a wide variety of feeds."
St-Pierre said producers could save as much as 50 cents per cow per day by adopting other feedstuffs in a more focused nutritional strategy. He offered several recommendations for alternative feedstuffs in the Buckeye Dairy Newsletter.
As to the income side of the ledger, St-Pierre said producers do not need to sit on the sidelines and grouse about the high cost of corn.
"We have a relatively highly regulated market," he said. "Since the late '90s, producers have sold milk on component pricing, where each of these components is priced separately. Basically producers have, at best, broken even in producing lactose - the water ends up being a loss, so producers are making money on the fat and protein, which is about 7 pounds per hundredweight of milk."
By focusing on maximizing the returns from fat and protein pricing when balancing rations, St-Pierre said farmers can enhance profitability as much as 30 percent.
Using the analogy of corn and soybean production, he advocated using "precision" farming techniques in planning cows' diets.
"It does require some work, including better feed management on the farm, and maybe a better nutritionist," he said. "We can gain in butterfat and protein by going to precision feeding as opposed to the old diets."
Precision feeding, he said, starts with balancing diets for metabolized protein rather than crude protein. Metabolized protein represents the net absorbed protein in the system, where crude protein is all protein ingested by the animal, with some amount of protein not utilized and subsequently excreted.
Secondly, St-Pierre recommended balancing diets by amino acids. He said nutritionists focusing on other species have been doing this for years, but not for ruminant animals.
"Now we can account in our formulations for methionine and lysine, and in those two areas we routinely get as much as a 2 percent improvement," he explained. "Last month protein was paid close to $4 per pound, and it cost less than $2 in nutrients to produce, so this is a highly profitable component to produce."
One of the biggest things St-Pierre stressed for farmers to do is simply to change their mindset, and way of thinking when it comes to diets and traditional feedstuffs.
He said there is "an infatuation" with starch in dairy rations as a result of years when corn was relatively cheap. While he noted that corn was once one of the cheapest digestible nutrients, cows do not have a specific dietary requirement for starch.
"It is highly fermentable, but some of the guidelines from years ago are no longer applicable," he said. "You need to look at other sources of digestible nutrients, for example, digestible fiber."
St-Pierre said the bottom line, when it comes to the bottom line, is that dairy farmers must adapt their thinking to improve productivity and enhance profitability.
"Things will evolve. Our knowledge and science will evolve, and producers need to evolve as well."