"There are two things to manage: feed costs and milk prices," says Normand St-Pierre, OSU Extension dairy specialist. "On the feed cost side, there is nothing that says you have to feed corn and soybeans, because ruminants, and dairy cows in particular, can take advantage of a wide variety of feeds."
St-Pierre says producers could save as much as $1 per cow per day by adopting other feedstuffs in a more focused nutritional strategy. He offers several recommendations for alternative feedstuffs in the Buckeye Dairy Newsletter.
As to the income side of the ledger, St-Pierre says producers do not need to sit on the sidelines and grouse about falling milk prices.
"We have a relatively highly regulated market," he says. "Since the late '90s, producers have sold milk based on component pricing, where each of the 4 main components in milk - fat, protein, other solids (lactose), and water - is priced separately. Basically producers have at best, broken even producing lactose - the sugar in milk, the water ends up being a loss due to hauling costs, so producers are making money on the fat and protein, which is about 7 pounds per hundredweight of milk. They lose money on the other 93 pounds."
By focusing on maximizing the returns from fat and protein pricing when balancing rations, St-Pierre said farmers can enhance profitability as much as 30%. Using the analogy of corn and soybean production, he advocates using "precision" farming techniques in planning cows' diets.
"It does require some work, including better feed management on the farm, and maybe a better nutritionist," he says. "We can gain in butterfat and protein by going to precision feeding as opposed to the old style of diets."
Precision feeding, he said, starts with balancing diets for metabolized protein rather than crude protein. Metabolized protein represents the net absorbed protein in the system, where crude protein is all protein ingested by the animal, with some amount of protein not utilized and subsequently excreted.
Secondly, St-Pierre recommends balancing diets for amino acids. He said nutritionists focusing on other species have been doing this for years, but not for ruminant animals.
"Now we can account in our formulations for at least two important amino acids: methionine and lysine, and in those two areas we routinely get as much as a 2-point improvement in milk protein," he explains. "Last month protein was paid close to $4 per pound, and it cost less than $2 in required nutrients to produce a pound of milk protein, so this is a highly profitable component to produce."
One of the biggest things St-Pierre stressed for farmers to do is simply to change their mindset, and way of thinking when it comes to diets and traditional feedstuffs.
He says there is "an infatuation" with starch in dairy rations as a result of years when corn was relatively cheap. While he noted that corn was once one of the cheapest digestible nutrients, cows do not have a specific dietary requirement for starch.
"It is highly fermentable, but some of the guidelines from years ago are no longer applicable," he says. "You need to look at other sources of digestible nutrients, for example, digestible fiber."
The bottom line, when it comes to the bottom line, is that dairy farmers must adapt their thinking to improve productivity and enhance profitability.
"Things will evolve. Our knowledge and science will evolve, and producers need to evolve as well."