Feeding Dairy Cows in Times of Low Milk Prices
Feeding Dairy Cows in Times of Low Milk Prices

Dr. Ronald L. Boman
USU Extension Dairy Nutritionist

When milk prices drop from $17 to $10/cwt there may be a tendency to want to try to cut back on feed costs, but by doing so we can eliminate some of the things that give us high milk production in the first place. Certainly we need to be judicious in using the best science and management practices in feeding our dairy herd, but cutting back on essential ingredients of the ration doesn�t make good economic sense. Below are some of the things that we need to take a close look at:

1. PHOSPHORUS. In the March 2000 Dairy Newsletter I tried to explain that in general we are over-feeding phosphorus. Research has demonstrated that there is no advantage in reproductive performance or milk production in exceeding NRC recommendations for phosphorus in dairy cattle rations. We can reduce phosphorus to 0.40 to 0.42% of the dietary dry matter of the ration for the milking cows in most cases and save money without affecting milk production or reproductive performance.

2. FEED A BALANCED RATION. Make certain that your rations are balanced nutritionally and that rations are mixed and delivered to the cows according to what has been formulated. Special care should be taken to assure accuracy in loading the feed mixer. For larger dairies there are computer programs attached to the scales to improve the accuracy of loading feeds and feed ingredients into the feed wagon. Smaller dairies need to use other methods such as pre-mixing vitamins, minerals and other expensive ingredients (that are fed in small amounts) with another feed or feeds so that errors of weighing and mixing are minimized. It make good economic sense to force feed vitamins and minerals (include them in with the ration) rather than allow animals free choice access where some animals may over-eat and some will not consume enough.

3. TIME OF DAY TO HARVEST HAY AND HAYLAGE. Whether you produce your own hay and haylage or buy it, you should take advantage of research information that shows a distinct advantage in forage quality and feed consumption for alfalfa that is harvested (cut) in the afternoon compared to harvesting in the morning. The soluble sugars and carbohydates are higher in the afternoon harvested alfalfa, and this improves the energy content (lower ADF) and the palatablity (how much cows will eat) of the hay or haylage. With low milk prices we have to look at practices like this and other little things that require little extra work but that will improve the bottom line.

4. FEED ADDITIVES. Most reputable (those that are research based) feed additives return $2 to $5 for every dollar spent on the product (even at $10 milk). Make your feed dealer and nutritionist show you the results of bona fide research on any feed additive that you are presently using or that you might be considering. A case in point is one of the chelated mineral complexes that has been thoroughly researched by private and public institutions. This product has been shown to improve milk production, but it also improves foot health, conservatively returning $5 to $10 for every dollar spent on the product.

5. WATER AVAILABILITY. Milk is about 88% water. Cows should never be limited in the amount of water that they can consume. With summer coming on it is especially important to have adequate clean water available for dairy animals. If they have sufficient water they will eat more feed and give more milk or gain at faster rates. This again is something that usually requires very little extra expense (but you may have to put in more and larger watering troughs).

6. EMPLOY YOUR BEST MANAGEMENT SKILLS. During times of low milk prices is the time when we need to step-up our management skills in all areas (not just nutrition). Nutrition and nutritional management are important areas because they represent about 50% of the cost of producing milk. BUT, take a hard look at all the management practices that you can improve on your dairy and then make sure that these things happen. ©