14 On-Farm Ways to Lower Feed Cost

Posted: March 20, 2018 | Written By: Brant Groen

lower feed cost

Based on the Minnesota Farm Business Management annual report, feed costs represent 40 to 60% of the total cost of producing milk on dairy farms (this includes heifers & dry cows also).  Prices paid for purchased commodities or forages greatly impact feed cost and farm profitability.  Dairy farmers have little control over these prices, unless feed is contracted.  Current prices for commodities reflect changes in supply and demand due to U.S. and global weather patterns, international purchases, and usage of commodities by ethanol production, all of which are outside a farmer’s control.  However, efficient management of all on-farm feeds can greatly impact a farm’s profitability.  I would like to take a look at areas within a feeding program where there may be some opportunities on your dairy.

Many of these areas and concepts regarding feeding and feed management for the dairy herd may seem simple, but in my experience, they are often the practices that separate profitable dairy herds from the less profitable ones.  The areas mentioned are in no particular order:

  1. Manage feed shrink
    • Manage feed storage and feed-out.
    • Moldy feed from poor storage conditions. Moldy feed requires the use of feed additives.
    • Wind and rain.
    • Birds or rodents.
    • Spilled feed while loading.
    • Feed tracked on tractor tires.
    • Errors with TMR scales.
    • Feeding errors.
    • Feed driven into the mud (as by piles & bags on dirt).
    • Disposal of bad feed from storage units.
  2. Manage refusals
    • Keep in mind the average TMR for lactating cows is about 5 cents per pound.
    • Ideal refusal is about 1-3 lbs/head/day. To manage to this level requires frequent & strategic feed push-up times.
    • If you manage to an empty bunk you will lose DMI/milk and cause metabolic disorders.
    • Five pounds of excess refusal is 25 cents/cow/day.
  3. Manage feed waste at the bunk
    • Piling too much feed at the bunk so cattle pull into area where cattle are standing.
    • When feeding with TMR or pushing up feed – spilling into area where cattle are standing.
    • Driving on feed with dirty wheels.
    • Cows can only reach about 22” into the feed alley (depending on curb height and neck rail setting). Make sure feed is pushed up so the cattle can always access adequate high-quality feed.
  4. Manage piles, bunkers, silos, bags
    • Manage moisture, particle length, kernel processing.
    • Manage to prevent rodent damage to plastic.
    • Manage to prevent mold and yeast.
    • Use oxygen barrier and quality plastic to seal the feed.
    • Cover piles & bunkers with tire sidewalls and place tire to tire over entire storage unit.
    • Meet packing weight requirement and time based on tons/hour coming into storage unit.
  5. Manage the wind
    • The wind drifts off our most valuable feed stuffs – such as mineral, vitamins, alfalfa leaves, corn, etc.
    • Use a feed handling facility, equipment and wind break that can control the wind.
  6. Manage feed changes
    • Minimize feed changes. It takes about 21 days for a cow’s rumen to adjust to a feed change.
    • Try to make only one feed change at a time.
    • Transitional feed changes are always the best – take 7-10 days to transition from one feed to the next. Example: when changing silage bags.
  7. Manage hay and bedding storage
    • When doing the math, a hay and bedding storage facility will pay for itself in three years or less.
  8. Manage feed quality
    • Quality on-farm feeds will always reduce purchase feed costs and will always improve animal performance.
    • Monitor harvest timing for quality, moisture and proper storage.
    • Example: to achieve 160+ RFQ hay/haylage the last few years, conventional hay needed to be harvested every 23-24 days. The 28-day rule of thumb seems to have gone by the wayside.
  9. Manage culling
    • 35 lb. rule – it takes about 34-35 lbs. of milk/cow/day to pay her entire feed bill just for the lactating cows (not including dry cows and heifers).
    • In today’s world, we cannot keep a pregnant cow around that is milking less than 35 lbs. (or more for some farms) and 2-3 months away from drying off.
  10. Manage dry cows – both far-off and pre-fresh
    • Far-off cows are cheaper to feed than pre-fresh so having two groups can be beneficial in some cases
    • Management of dry cows affect fresh cow disorders and peak milk, so don’t skimp on their diets, bedding, and housing requirements.
  11. Manage fresh cows
    • As the fresh cow immune system tends to be compromised, high quality feed and high quality feed management is always essential.
  12. Manage heifers
    • Cull poor performing heifers.
    • Don’t have more heifers on hand than you need. Well managed farms need about 85-100 head (from birth to calving) per 100 milking cows.
    • Usually heifers are the number two cost item on dairy (sometimes labor cost can be a little higher). Having excess heifers around can be very costly.
  13. Manage overcrowding
    • When cattle are overcrowded their performance is always reduced.
    • When cattle are overcrowded, the bunks need to be filled too much, causing feed wastage.
  14. Manage records
    • Implement a feed software program. There are a lot of feed software programs out there that can really help with feed management.
    • Know DMI for every group on the farm.
    • Know feed cost per day per month for every group on the farm.

During difficult economic times, or even when prices are good, there is a lot of money to be made by management of on-farm feeds.  There are many things you can control on the farm; let’s control them to the best of our abilities.  There is an opportunity to save hundreds to thousands of dollars, in addition to improving animal performance.  Do your math per day, per month and per year.

I’ve never seen a farm yet that fed for less milk (to reduce purchased feed cost) that made money doing it.  Work with your Form-A-Feed nutritionist to review what is in your ration and why.  Also, ask your nutritionist areas they feel would be the greatest opportunities on your farm. Our goal is to work with you to keep your farm profitable and productive!