Feeders don’t have to be nutritionists, but understanding the basics of dry matter (DM), knowing why it is important, and having the knowledge to adjust when problems arise are all key areas in which the best feeders excel. The recent Feeder School two-day workshops held across New York, offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension Dairy Specialists and Cornell PRO-DAIRY, provided dairy feeders with the opportunity to hone their skills, and recognize the importance their role plays in dairy economic success.
“One-third of operating expenses are associated with something you are handling every day,” Kelsey O’Shea, NNY Regional Ag-Business Specialist, said, adding that feed is the single largest expense on a dairy farm.
Feeder efficiency, as well as proper bunk silo management and feed quality, can be increased without major capital expenses, O’Shea said. Doing so can cut shrink, decrease labor costs, and save the farm money without sacrificing milk production and cow health.
Saving labor, by “getting it done faster, or buying bigger equipment,” is one obvious route to decreasing the time and cost of feeding cows, she said. But efficiency can be impacted in a variety of ways, and streamlining the feeding process can affect the bottom line without requiring a large capital investment.
If feeders are moving from point A to point B and back again to grab ingredients, the process isn’t efficient. If the herdsmen are moving cattle at the time you are normally ready to delivery the feed, causing delays, there is a real cost. The organization of the animal pens can decrease feeder efficiency.
“Thinking critically on how to make your job better sometimes leads to solutions,” O’Shea said. “Is whatever you’re doing going to yield a net return?”
Assessing both added revenue or reduced costs associated with making a change before opting to do so, and also doing a post-evaluation to determine if the change was effective, is imperative. Some changes may not make more money for the dairy, but may make life better through enhanced safety, better feed quality, and a less stressful work environment.
“Meaningful suggestions are always helpful. You guys know this job best,” O’Shea said. “Your job directly impacts the bottom line.”
Dairy cow nutrition is the focus of a lot of research. Complex diet formulations from the nutritionist may not seem as important as getting job done, and a variety of factors — some of which seem inconsequential — can impact cow health and productivity.
“How important is it to have a consistent total mixed ration (TMR)?” Bill Stone, DVM, of Diamond V, asked participants in the second day of the Central region’s Feeder School, held at Whittaker Farms, in Whitney Point. “The goal is to get as close to the nutritionist’s paper as possible.”
Doing so begins with properly managing well-packed, high-density bunkers. Excluding air, to prevent spoilage, is crucial. Tires, which are packed tightly across the top of the bunker, holding down the plastic layer, aren’t for aesthetics: they keep the air out. Air causes silage to spoil. And that leading edge of plastic? It needs to be weighted down, and moved — just enough to allow the face to be shaved — about every two weeks. These steps can keep the stored feeds from spoiling, and keep feed quality high.
Despite the importance of feed, which is the number one cost of production on the dairy and which critically impacts cow performance, “feeding systems aren’t often well-monitored,” Stone said. Dairies will benefit from having “systems in place with our feeding programs, like with our milking programs.”
When mixing the TMR, feeders do need to take into account a variety of factors. Is the feed bunk wet? If so, the dry matter will be incorrect unless adjustments are made.
With rain, “we know it goes down,” Stone said of the DM in the forage. He offered a general rule of thumb: for heavy rain, a 10 percent adjustment in DM calculations is needed, while a light rain calls for a five percent change.
Feeders who attended the class learned how to properly calculate that change, based on the DM percentage of the silage, the amount of DM the cows need from the silage, the number of cows being fed, and the number of times per day feeding occurs. Correcting the DM means plugging the numbers into the proper equation.
Aside from DM changes in the forages themselves, the mixing of the forages can cause problems. If the equipment isn’t properly calibrated, or is not functioning correctly, the TMR mix won’t match the formulated diet. If the feeder isn’t paying attention and adds too much or too little of any given ingredient, the diet won’t work. Improper feed mixing causes performance loss, as well as associated costs with over-feeding any given input. Just a small error, repeated a few times, can result in overfeeding tons of an ingredient, and can cost the dairy a lot of money, quickly.
Feeders also need to be aware of mixing issues, refusal rates, grain flow concerns, odd cow behaviors, sorting behaviors, empty bunks, and the length of chop for hay or straw, Betsy Hicks, Dairy Specialist for South Central NY, said. All of these can indicate that something is not correct with the diet being fed, even if the dietary formulation hasn’t changed.
“Cows like consistency,” Hicks said, and a behavior change is a good indication that something has gone wrong.
Feeders don’t just throw the ingredients together as dictated by the nutritionist. It isn’t that simple. They have a responsibility to evaluate the feeds, properly manage the bunk silo face, maintain feed inventories, mix feed correctly, take and analyze feed samples for DM, assess cow DMI, keep records, and communicate with the owner, the nutritionist and others involved in feeding cows.
Feeders are important. Learning as much as possible about the dairy cow nutrition, feed ingredients, proper preparation of rations, and best practices for bunker silo management allows feeders to better understand the importance of their role on the dairy, and to perform at the highest level.