Is it an achievable goal to maintain lactating cows on the same forage ration for 12 months? Most people would automatically respond no to this question. Based on my experience as a dairy producer, dairy manager and nutritionist it can be a realistic goal; however it requires a very committed and focused approach to achieve that end result.
In my role as dairy producer and manager cows could remain on the same forage ration. This means that the amount of dry matter pounds fed remained the same but quality could change over time, especially when feeding hay crop forage. Producers who are excellent managers tend to be very consistent with the quality and amounts produced in spite of weather conditions. Finding the cropping strategy that works best is the key.
Hay-crop forages are challenging due to the multiple cuttings that occur. Pure stands of legumes and/or grasses are much easier to manage throughout the season compared to mixtures. There is no such thing as a normal growing season. The tendency is for excess moisture when you don't need it and not enough when it is needed. When legume/grass mixtures are grown, then the plant best suited to wet or dry conditions will prevail and over the course of several months the blend of forages in the mix can drastically change. Legumes can be forgiving in quality and quantity during drought conditions. When hay-crop forage does not make up the majority of the forage dry matter intake, a strategy would be to ensile all the first cutting. This could meet the herd's requirement for the lactating cows from harvest to harvest. There are operations that excel in maintaining similar quality material regardless of the cutting. These producers pay close attention to cutting dates, impending weather conditions, and labor management to quickly harvest and ensile material.
The positive results from feeding fermented corn silage have been demonstrated over and over again. Good managers plan out inventories to ensure the current harvest ferments for several months before feeding. There are producers who select hybrids that can be fed right after harvest when carry over is not an option. The hybrids are selected to have similar starch and fiber digestibility as fermented silage. These hybrids do not result in a milk production drop during fall and early winter months. Good management and a willingness to make adjustments quickly enable these producers to maintain consistent quality and quantity most of the time. There is always going to be a growing season that is extreme related to moisture and temperature where the 365 day forage ration may not be feasible, but it's still worth the effort to pursue this goal.
From a nutritionist's perspective, the easiest herds to work with are the ones feeding a consistent forage ration. There were some years as manager of the Penn State Dairy Herd that I formulated the ration one time in a 12 month period and the only adjustments made were to the weekly dry matter percents of the forages. This approach avoided a lot of headaches related to animal performance, required less time to reformulate diets, and the feeder didn't need to make major adjustments to the recipes. To achieve this goal, a lot of thought went into forage inventory, the storage structure appropriate for the particular forage, and the commodities that best complimented the forage ration. The objective was to provide the best ration at the best cost that resulted in the best animal performance. Even with price fluctuations of commodities, income over feed costs consistently showed that regardless of the milk price/cwt, maintaining milk income was the most important fundamental principle. By maintaining a high quality, consistent forage based ration (>55% forage dry matter), there was less reliance on purchased feeds. The commodities utilized were typically very consistent, which added to the precision of the ration being fed. A 365 day forage ration is achievable if one is willing to make it happen. Accomplishing the goal means producers must coordinate the crop production system with the feeding program and the storage resources on the farm.
Action plan for sustaining the dairy operation during times of market price volatility
Goal: Implement cropping practices to harvest and store consistent high quality hay-crop forage and corn silage so the lactating herd can receive the same dry matter pounds of forage for 12 months.
- Step 1: Consult the nutritionist to develop the ideal forage ration along with the feeds best suited to compliment them for the lactating herd. Include purchased feed costs and the anticipated income over feed costs.
- Step 2: Consult with the appropriate advisers to evaluate forage inventory and storage structures to develop a plan for harvesting consistent quality forages in ample amounts.
- Step 3: Develop a cash flow plan evaluating the new rations fed for a 12 month period and the costs to produce home raised feeds to accurately assess the impact on cash surplus.
- Step 4: Maintain a routine dialogue with both the crop adviser and nutritionist to evaluate the implementation of the cropping and feeding management practices.
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: October's Penn State milk price: $18.51/cwt; feed cost/cow: $6.60; average milk production: 81 lbs.
Feed cost/non-lactating animal/day.