The Do’s and Don’ts of Lowering Feed Costs
March 23, 2021
Feed prices are on the verge of being at their highest level in years. In turn, this has caused some major concern for dairy producers who are already facing tight margins.
However, when considering your options to lower your feed bill, there are some do’s and don’ts. Jordan Kraft-Lambert, vice president of business development at VAS, along with Mark Schlaefer, feed manger at Kinnard Farm in Green Bay, Wis., offer these tips:
What To Do
Get Visibility “Most producers are feeding their cows by using spreadsheets, but some are just scribbling the rations down on a sheet of paper so there’s no real-time feedback about how accurately they’re feeding their animals a consistent ration,” Kraft-Lambert says.
To gain a better understanding of what’s actually happening at the feed bunk, she suggests using a feed management system to help monitor feed inventory, record trends and assist with management decisions.
“In order to help control feed costs, one of the best things a producer can do is invest in a feed management system because that gives you the ability to really see what’s going on,” Kraft-Lambert adds. Track Progress If you want to know where you’re going, it’s important to know where you’ve been. According to Kraft-Lambert, keeping track of your progress is a crucial step in a feed management program.
“I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible memory,” she jokes. “One of the great things about feed management software is you can set it up to send you email notifications to see how you’ve performed. It’s more of a coaching tool and a companion to help you understand how to be the best feeder possible.” If you don’t have the means to invest in a feed management system, there are other ways to track your progress.
“Getting in the habit of making a little appointment with yourself to calculate your feed costs per pound of dry matter is a good practice,” Kraft-Lambert says. “Just looking at that every week can help you make better decisions as you’re deciding what feed to buy.”
Make Your Own In just a matter of weeks producers will hit the fields to get their crops in the ground. It’s likely we’ll see farmers planting more of their own forages this year to help keep feed prices lower.
“When possible, the best thing you can do is make your own feed and control those costs,” Kraft-Lambert adds. “It’s important to have some in-depth conversations with your agronomist, particularly about how much nitrogen you need to be putting on your field. Getting the right amount of nitrogen into that corn crop means you’re going to have a lot of really great protein in your silage, which translates to the protein that ends up in the milk check.”
What Not to Do
Allow Feed Shrink One item that might be racking up your feed bill could be feed shrink, Kraft-Lambert says. According to Ohio State University Extension, approximately 60¢ on the dollar is the average feed shrink per cow per day.
“What that means is in a 1,000-cow herd, if you solve just 5% of that 60¢ loss per cow per day due to feed shrink that’s $10,000 a year in decreased feed waste,” Kraft-Lambert says. “Feed shrink can come from a variety of places such as improper bunker management, feed blowing away on a windy day or even feed just not getting mixed properly in the mixer wagon.” Overfeed Your Herd Another area of opportunity is to make sure you’re not overfeeding certain pens. Kraft-Lambert emphasizes the importance of knowing how many animals are in each pen and scaling those rations appropriately. One way to measure this is by weighing your refusals.
“Before the next feeding, you can actually push up all of the refusals and weigh them every day to see how much your overfeeding,” Kraft-Lambert says. “If you are overfeeding, you might say to yourself, ‘There’s a lot of extra rations here I didn’t need to spend money on, but I did,’ and that can be frustrating. So, if you start to log and record those refusals, you can see where you are overfeeding and if you’re starting to make progress.”
At Kinnard Farms, Schlaefer and his team are constantly monitoring their refusals. They use three weigh-back wagons to record the amount of feed each pen does not consume.
“We try to aim for about a 5% refusal,” Schlaefer explains. “For a while, we were aiming for a 3% refusal, but 3% is pretty small. I remember going out there and thinking all of the bunks were empty even though the feed going back into the wagon weighed a lot.
So, then we increased our goal to the 5% and the cows responded positively because it kept a little more of that feed in front of them.” Cut Corners While it’s tempting to eliminate some of the expensive ingredients in your ration to reduce costs, you might end up causing more harm than good.
“We don’t look at our ration and say, ‘let’s just take this ingredient out because the price is high,’” Schlaefer says. “A lot of those ingredients are what keep the milk flowing. You’re feeding them for a reason. So, if you take out some of those ingredients, the cows are going to drop production, and you’re going to lose some of your milk check.”
Typically, feed management protocols should be addressed before cutting certain ingredients from the diet. Know everything One of the most important relationships a producer should form on the farm is with their nutritionist, Kraft-Lambert says. This especially holds true when feed prices start to climb.
“Before you start to make any changes to your ration, it’s important to consult with your nutritionist to make sure you keep your cows on track,” she says. “Just having another set of eyes to look over your feeding program can be really helpful, so don’t be afraid to ask them questions. They’re there to help.”