Ration considerations during low milk prices – Randall Greenfield, Vita Plus

Posted on March 22, 2016 in Forage Foundations
By Randall Greenfield, Vita Plus dairy specialist
Low milk prices are here. Again. And they’re expected to stick around for the rest of the year.

As I write this article, the already-announced prices, along with the futures market for Class III milk for the 12 months of 2016, average $14.10 cwt. Hopes for potential profits have morphed into determination to minimize losses.

No matter the economic state of dairy, the rations we feed to our dairy cattle are a key player in maximizing profits and minimizing costs.

Forages are almost always the class of ingredients that occupies the largest space in a dairy diet. Often, but not always, they are also the most economical ingredients to be included. The extent of their quality can define the limit of both dry matter intake and milk production potential of the ration.

The amount of fiber in alfalfa and/or grass increases as the plant matures. The fiber content of these forages used to be the only index of quality – the more fiber present, the lower the quality (relative feed value (RFV)).

I ran a ration comparison by holding both the corn silage and the amount of forage fiber constant across rations and then compared a 120-RFV haylage with a 160-RFV at today’s lower feed costs. The diet using the 120-RFV haylage would add $0.38 per head in daily purchased feed costs assuming all concentrates are being purchased.

Today, however, we not only look at the quantity of the fiber present in our forages, but also the digestibility of that fiber. That means that simply holding the forage fiber constant by adding more concentrate in the ration comparison above will not be able to make up all of the milk production lost due to feeding the poorer haylage. Conservatively, I would expect at least 2-pounds less milk on the 120-RFV ration. Even at $16 cwt milk, that is another $0.32 per head lost daily at minimum. That’s a combined total annual loss of more than $125,000 for a herd that is milking 500 cows.

Corn silage
Fiber quantity and digestibility in corn silage are less due to the timing of harvest and are affected more by hybrid selection and growing season.  But harvest management still has a huge effect on how corn silage will feed. That’s because up to 40 percent of its dry matter could be starch and harvest moisture will greatly affect the digestibility of that starch.

Similar to fiber digestibility, we can make up for the quantity of starch we think we are losing on paper, but we can never totally make up for it when it comes to milk production. There is a cost to the animal for eating indigestible nutrients.

If corn silage is harvested too late and dry, and the starch digestibility is lowered by 20 percent (assuming a 32-percent starch silage and a feeding rate of 18 pounds of silage dry matter).  That means we’re losing more than 1 pound of starch per head daily in the manure. Theoretically, we could just feed an extra 1.5 pounds of corn to make up for it (at a daily cost of $0.12 per head), but, even by doing that, we won’t be able to recoup all of the milk lost had the corn silage been harvested at the proper moisture.

Other considerations
Once the harvest timing is settled, other threats also need to be managed. Using a research-proven lactic acid bacterial inoculant will speed the fermentation process, preserve more forage dry matter, and improve milk production. If the silage structure is one that will be prone to spoilage problems, an L. buchneri inoculant can be used proactively to prevent that spoilage. Quickly packing and sealing silages in air-tight structures will limit oxygen infiltration and the resulting spoilage.

Given this year’s tight financial situation, take some time to ensure that the forage base of your dairy rations will help you to minimize feed costs and maximize milk component production.

Category: Feed quality and nutrition
Forage Foundations
Milk production and components