Make profitable feeding decisions


    With economists projecting a $100 per cow loss per month in Illinois, dairy producers face a difficult spring and summer, said Mike Hutjens, dairy Extension specialist at the University of Illinois.
“The good news is we’re going to improve this fall,” Hutjens said, speaking at the Vermont Large Dairy Conference in February. Before then, however, producers will have to scrape through the next few months.

    Hutjens discussed his three golden rules:
1. Never give up milk production, because your income will drop faster than expenses. Cows produce 2 pounds of milk for every 1 pound of dry matter (DM) in a ration. Cutting DM saves 9 to 11 cents per pound but will cost 36 to 40 cents in milk income.
2. Maintain components. Milk protein is worth $2.30 per pound, while milk fat is worth $1.10 per pound. Is there a way to feed to increase components? Do you know the protein vs. fat content of your milk?
3. Don’t make changes that will hurt profitability in the long run. For instance:
• Maintain age at first calving at 23 to 24 months. It costs  $2 a day to feed a heifer. Make sure she’s ready to join the milking herd on time.
• Follow an accelerated calf program, which can increase milk by 1,100 pounds in a cow’s first lactation.
• Get cows bred on time. A cow cost you $2 a day after 120 days open; $8 a day after 200 days.
• Watch for lameness; lame cows average 6 fewer pounds of milk.
• Maintain a low somatic cell count (SCCC). Cows increase 2 pounds of milk with every decrease in SCCs linear score.

Know your numbers        
Feed is one cost over which you have some control, so knowing your feed benchmarks is especially crucial now, Hutjens said. On your dairy, you should know feed cost per pound of DM, feed cost per hundredweight, income over feed cost, and feed efficiency, or the ratio of pounds of 3.5% fat-corrected milk to 1 pound DM. This number shows how efficiently your herd converts feed into milk. Feed efficiency goals should be:
• Entire herd – > 1.5
• High-producing cow group – > 1.7
• High-producing heifers – > 1.5
• Low-producing cows – > 1.3
• Fresh cow group – < 1.5
      Hutjens outlined the 55-15-30 rule for a ration, which includes 55% DM from forage and 30% from concentrate. “The other 15% is yours to call, such as more forage, by-product feeds or economical grain sources” he  said.
When making changes in feed, watch cows’ response, Hutjens said. They will “talk” to you by way of milk urea nitrogen, fecal scores, DMI and other indicators. If the response is negative, you’ve made the wrong decision. Some changes you may consider:
• Balance rations using  a rumen model program in order to reach optimal levels of metabolizable protein, the proper ratio of amino acids and energy levels in the ration.
•  With high-quality forage, you can adjust forage levels in the ration to their most economical level. Try increasing corn silage levels. “Feed cost per cow per day may drop 15 to 30 cents as protein prices remain competitive,” he said.
• Review additives such as rumen buffers, yeast cultures, monensin and silage inoculants. Hutjens said he sees producers cutting back on rumen-protected amino acids, monensin and other protein supplements. True, additives will boost ration cost. But they can increase income or health improvement four-fold.
• Lower starch levels. New research shows that you can reduce starch to a 18 to 20% level, with 19 to 26% recommended. Be sure to feed more high-quality fiber, feeding sources of sugar and an ionophore.
A fecal starch analysis (cost: $10 to $20 for a sample from half-dozen cows) is useful to estimate total starch digestibility. If fecal starch is more than 5 to 6%, look at kernel processing of corn silage and processing corn grain in order to increase starch availability and cut fecal losses of starch. Corn processing can increase FCM by 2 pounds. But make sure it’s done correctly.
• Take a look at the economics of byproducts and cheaper nutrient sources such as distillers grain and corn gluten feed. Two computer programs that can compare the economics of byproducts are Feed Val from the University of Wisconsin ( and Sesame from The Ohio State University (
• Monitor weigh backs and fine-tune feed bunk management in order to minimize feed costs.
• Shift from a one-group TMR to multiple TMRs, A higher forage ration fed to low groups can save 75 cents or more per day, Hutjens said.