Feeding Dairy Cows in a Crazy Marketplace

1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

EAST EARL, Pa. — When dairy prices get tight, farmers are tempted to cut back to save money on feed costs. But what might seem like a short-term gain could turn into a long-term loss, according to one dairy nutritionist.

Brian Perkins, a Diamond V technical specialist, spoke to dairy farmers Tuesday at the REB Dairy Consultants meeting at Shady Maple Restaurant in East Earl.

“It wasn’t that long ago we could feed a cow for $4 a day,” he said. “Now it is over $7 a day, and boy, is that a big change.”

Perkins talked about management practices to improve farm profitability in a time of higher feed costs.

“The key is control what you can control,” he said. “There is no magic answers or magic additives. Cow requirements don’t change when the feed prices change. They don’t know when feed price is low or feed price is high. ...

“Don’t ever do anything that reduces milk flow. That is what we sell,” he said. “For you, an individual dairy farmer, it’s about making as much milk as you can.”

Income over feed costs is the gold standard Perkins uses for measuring farm profitability. Do not use ratios, he said, because they can be misleading and not show where the problem lies.

The pitfall some farmers fell into during 2009 was cutting back their feeding programs, which resulted in cow breeding problems. Days in milk lengthened and production dropped.

When prices bounced back, the farmers did not have the milk production to capture the higher profits.

“You cannot turn a herd on or off overnight, so we have to be sure we don’t (get) in a position where it takes months and months for the herd to gear back up when prices are really profitable,” he said.

An obvious control point is feed management, starting with managing silos and storage areas to minimize spoilage and shrinkage. Feed that is moldy or “blows away” cannot be fed, he said.

With high prices, minimize feed-ration mixing errors to make sure the ration stays consistent, he advised. And to round out the feeding program, maximize forage quality.

“We need to do everything to do the absolute best job we can with our limited acres,” he said.

Looking at the heifers on a farm, farmers should have a freshening goal of 22 to 24 months of age.

“Those older heifers eat an amazing amount of feed and are expensive to keep around,” he said.

But Perkins also noted that he did not like heifers freshening at 21 months, believing they are too young then.

Cow comfort can help minimize costs. The more “uncomfortable” the cow, the more energy she requires to live. Stall comfort, adequate bedding, disease prevention, minimizing heat stress and keeping cows clean are energy savers for cows.

The first $3 of a ration will go to animal maintenance, Perkins said. The rest of the ration will be used for milk production.

“The goal is to dilute maintenance costs with milk production,” he said.

The lower the production, the more it costs per pound just to keep the cow alive.

“We need to look at high production per cow to dilute maintenance costs,” he said.

The other profit potential comes from milk components.

“You don’t get paid for the water you ship,” Perkins said. “You get paid a lot for the protein and the fat that is in there.”

Farmers should track butterfat and protein production, and see how they compare with other herds, he said. Farmers should strive to be above the average. Lower somatic cell counts also yield milk check bonuses.

With high beef prices, farmers should cull cows aggressively, Perkins said. Replacement heifer costs are reasonable when farmers can sell an older cow and for just another $200 have a younger one in the herd.

“When you have got that trade, it is a great way to trade in older cows,” he said. “When you can do a trade like that, you should do that trade every day of the week.”

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