Precision Feeding Lifeline

Posted: January 16, 2017

Most dairy producers will welcome the end of 2016. The variability in weather, forage quality and quantity, and the low milk prices will not be missed. However, what will 2017 offer and what can be done to manage the ups and downs? The one constant is precision feeding as the lifeline for keeping margins in check throughout the year.

Production Perspective

In 2016 the Penn State dairy herd averaged a gross milk price of $16.84/cwt with an average Class III milk price of $14.87/cwt and a basis of $1.97. The projection for 2017 is a $17.50/cwt Class III milk price. Corn price is ranging between $3 and $4/bushel and soybeans $10/bushel. It appears milk price will improve and feed prices will remain about the same compared to 2016. The one unknown is weather and how that will impact forage quality and quantity. These scenarios are not new and should not be a surprise to anyone working in the dairy industry.  Precision feeding is the one constant that can maintain milk production, control feed costs, and manage forage inventories. All three items are important to maintain a respectable margin so expenses can be paid.

Over the past five years more Pennsylvania dairy producers have embraced precision feeding. This is being confirmed by comparing TMR analysis results with the formulated ration. A close match of nutrient specifications shows the farm is paying attention to feed management. There are some commonalities of farms doing an excellent job with precision feeding. The first is the lactating cow ration contains high amounts of corn silage with other alternative forage sources such as small grain silage.  By balancing for metabolizable protein, the protein percent of the milk cow ration has been greatly reduced to 16 to 17% on a dry matter basis compared to levels observed in the early 2000s of 18 to 19%. This has improved the carbohydrate and protein balance for the cow and in many instances production has improved or been maintained. Progressive producers are routinely monitoring the dry matters of their feeds and adjusting the rations accordingly. They are also managing how crops are harvested and stored to better match the animal group being fed.

Shrink or feed loss can have huge implications especially when yields have been compromised due to weather conditions. Managing feed out from storage and during feeding can make a difference by several weeks on the amount of forage retained in inventory. Management is the key for keeping dairies in business and precision feeding encompasses many aspects related to cropping and feeding management.

 Precision feeding is not only for lactating cows but also for dry cows and heifers. These groups can affect forage inventory, feed costs, and animal performance. They are the future income generators of the operation and precision feeding for these groups can make or break the budget.

 Precision feeding is not only for TMR fed herds. Component feeding can be managed for precision feeding however it may require more attention to details. Grain mixes and protein supplements can be analyzed to compare to the paper formulation. Checking weights of grain scoops and hay/silage bales can help hone in on dry matter intakes. There are feeders available that minimize waste when hay/silage bales are offered free choice. Monitoring animal growth can confirm animals are receiving the correct amounts of feed or that feed space is adequate. If precision feeding is made a priority it can work on any dairy operation regardless of the feeding system or herd size.

Action plan for implementing precision feeding on the dairy operation


Monitor feed inventory, income over feed costs and ration agreement with the formulated diets on all animal groups on a quarterly basis.


  • Step 1: Monitor feed inventory by determining the amount of forages and/or grains currently stored in all structures. Record the usage of feeds as they are being mixed or utilized. Determine the estimated length of time forage/grain will be available.
  • Step 2: Check dry matters on all high moisture ingredients weekly or when necessary. Analyze any forage or grain when changes occur. Adjust all rations accordingly.
  • Step 3: Monitor income over feed cost monthly.
  • Step 4: Each quarter, or when necessary, sample the TMR and/or complete grain mix to compare to the formulated diet or mix.
  • Step 5: Meet with the farm's advisory team and include discussion on the farm's inventory and income over feed costs.

Economic perspective

Monitoring must include an economic component to determine if a management strategy is working or not. For the lactating cows income over feed costs is a good way to check that feed costs are in line for the level of milk production. Starting with July's milk price, income over feed costs was calculated using average intake and production for the last six years from the Penn State dairy herd. The ration contained 63% forage consisting of corn silage, haylage and hay. The concentrate portion included corn grain, candy meal, sugar, canola meal, roasted soybeans, Optigen (Alltech product) and a mineral vitamin mix. All market prices were used.

Also included are the feed costs for dry cows, springing heifers, pregnant heifers and growing heifers. The rations reflect what has been fed to these animal groups at the Penn State dairy herd. All market prices were used.

Income over feed cost using standardized rations and production data from the Penn State dairy herd.

Note: December's Penn State milk price: $19.18/cwt; feed cost/cow: $5.87; average milk production: 84 lbs.

Feed cost/non-lactating animal/day.


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Precision Feeding Lifeline

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Contact Information

Virginia A. Ishler
  • Extension Dairy Specialist
Phone: 814-863-3912