An increasing number of dairy producers want their nutritionists to balance budgets as well as rations. They want “Jacks of all trades” who offer financial, managerial and herd-health advice as well as feed-bunk and silage management education.

That’s according to three nutritionists, speaking of the challenges of their chosen profession, at this summer’s Four-State Dairy Nutrition and Management Conference in Dubuque, IA.

“We’ve kind of created this,” suggested Mike DeGroot of DeGroot Dairy Consulting, Visalia, CA. “We have asked our clients, ‘What do you want from us?’ ”

The top answer: “Help on financials – tractor purchases, seed purchases, all of those things that are going to affect the overall bottom line. Nutritionist by day and whatever else by night,” he said.

“When I got into the nutrition side of this,” added Mike Conner of Nutrition and Management, Hico, TX, “all we looked at was feed costs. There’s so much more that’s impacting the bottom line for these dairies. It’s gotten to the point now where, because of my concern for the clients I work with, I’ve gotten into areas outside of dairy nutrition that I think will help them become better managers.

“It’s amazing to me how many of our dairymen think a good financial scenario is having enough money to make it through the end of the month to pay off the bills.”

Getting up to speed on their clients’ financial situations isn’t easy for nutritionists, said DeGroot. Conner agreed: “I am going into this with a degree of trepidation. There is a certain amount of risk involved, and it’s a learning curve for me.”

Some banks welcome nutritionists’ involvement, he added. “We can pull the numbers together and facilitate producers in looking at their financials.”

A few larger California dairies DeGroot works with have controllers, yet he helps provide partial budgets and cash-flow and monthly and quarterly profit-loss reports. “I’m learning as I go, but it’s giving us some good numbers to look at.”

Also uncomfortable giving budget advice: veterinarian and nutrition consultant Bob Stoltzfus, of Lancaster (PA) Veterinary Associates. But with his customers’ herds, he’s a member of a “profit team” that’s part of the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence’s Dairy Resource Team Program.

A producer assembles his own team, often including the herdsman, banker, accountant, veterinarian, nutritionist, Extension or industry advisors. It meets four or more times a year to look at the dairy’s financials and production and health parameters and discuss ways to improve herd performance and profitability.

“The team approach brings advisors with a variety of experience and expertise to the table,” Stoltzfus explained.

Nutritionists in California are also working on a way that bankers and producers can better communicate, DeGroot said.

The most frustrating aspect of gathering financial information: the variability in feed and milk prices, they added.

The panel of nutritionists, from California, Texas and Pennsylvania, also talked about nutrition-related challenges, some of which are unique to their geography.

Dairy producers in California, DeGroot said, buy most of their feed. “I would say less than 10% of our clients grow forage, so we’re purchasing a lot.” The problem, particularly this year, is that land is going into permanent crops, such as trees. The consequence: fewer silage-corn acres.

“I’ve got clients feeding zero alfalfa hay and 4-5 lbs rice straw just to get some effective fiber into that ration. But in feeding fewer forages, we’re seeing some decreases in efficiencies on these herds, pushing things like almond hulls through cows and seeing where the limits are.

“As far as production, I haven’t seen too much of a difference, but definitely a difference in intakes.”

California dairy producers need to better-manage silage, he said. “We’ve got these closer-to-God piles and try to make them work. Some of the variation you see on them is pretty amazing just looking at the top to bottom and across the face.” This year, however, he feels more clients are seeing how they can reduce spoilage with better management, like facing piles carefully rather than just digging into them.

Feed-bunk management is also a major concern. “We have a lot who want to feed just once a day and call it good. But I am working with my guys as far as trying to keep fresh feed in front of those cows, trying to keep the feed pushed up,” the nutritionist said.

 DeGroot feels feed efficiencies are at a lower standard in California. “In my personal opinion, it’s because of fiber digestibility. I think there’s a huge difference on digestibility with our forages we have vs. out here (in the Midwest).”

Refusals in the two of his client herds that measure feed push-offs daily are between 2% and 5%. “On other herds we’re between 10% and 15% and that’s where we’re trying to focus on some of our feed management.”

The state is “behind the eight-ball” on using milk urea nitrogen (MUN) analysis to increase protein efficiency, he added. “We’re starting to get some of our DHIA labs to do it. Creameries will not. They told us it’s basically double the cost of any component testing.” Most of the protein numbers he gathers are from manure tests.

DeGroot balances three rations – for fresh, high and maintenance cows – for most of his client herds. “We always have a fluctuating pen where we feed either the mid-cow or high-cow ration depending on where we are in herd logistics.”

Last year’s drought-induced forage shortage was a major trial for some clients Conner serves in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. “In our area across the Southwest, we had to pay some exorbitant prices for our feed ingredients – alfalfa hay from $320 to $360/ton, corn silage running up to $80/ton in the rations and, of course, the grain. So we had to maximize production in order to try and deal with these feed costs.”

Forage quality was highly variable, he said. “Alfalfa hay? We were lucky we could get in stuff that was 130-140 RFV and, if that’s your only forage source … you try to add byproducts to make it work and that’s a big challenge.”

This year’s rains have helped shore up forage supplies in Texas, he said. But, in New Mexico, a “fair amount” of alfalfa and other forage has been exported to the Middle East, increasing prices.

Silage management is also something his large dairies need to get a handle on, Conner said. But day-to-day management, such as getting cows milked twice a day and fed on schedule, has also been a challenge.

“Feed efficiency? I like to be aware of it but I don’t measure it. My idea of feed efficiency is making sure that we have enough feed out there for the cows without wasting it. I am a zero push-off person, and that’s what I try to train my people for. I figure if we’re pushing it off, we’re not getting effective use out of the feed.”

Cows are grouped, not only based on production and reproduction, but also on condition of the feeds. “I don’t want a residual feed (over-feeding that leads to excess weight gain) being offered because that just tends to make them fat, and we run into more reproductive problems in the next lactation,” Conner pointed out.

Co-ops provide MUN data, but Conner doesn’t have the financial liberty to push proteins higher to try to get more milk, he said. He’s more concerned with maintaining correct phosphorus levels in Texas, which is “heavy into phosphorus evaluation” and known to levy fines.

In the future, he predicted, “instead of having 75¢ or $1/cwt profit, we’re going to be looking at a nickel, a dime, maybe 25¢. We’re going to have to be tweaking things to make them more efficient, not only on the feedstocks, but even on the management side.”

When Pennsylvania’s Stoltzfus is wearing his veterinarian hat, he’s finding he does “less and less sick-cow work and more and more preventative work.

“It’s common for producers to think that production problems are nutritional problems,” he said. But a number of his client herds have been evaluated by an ongoing Novus study that looks at cow-comfort issues. It showed that non-nutrition issues also hurt production.

“So that begins a discussion on lameness, cow comfort, overstocking, time away from the pen, time laying down and stall dimensions and stall maintenance. Lameness is a big issue.”

Keeping cows healthy, he added, is his first priority when putting a ration together. “Effective fiber, starch, metabolizable protein and energy, minerals and vitamins are all important aspects of the feed ration.”

His client herds’ forage is mainly corn silage. “I have several herds of 1,000 cows that use corn silage as forage with just a little bit of straw or grass hay added as a scratch factor.”

Some feed small-grain silages, like ryelage, which is double-cropped with corn silage. Little or no alfalfa haylage is grown or fed at many of his dairies.

Stoltzfus balances separate rations for dry, post-partum and lactating cows. He uses grouping strategies to obtain optimal milk production efficiency and labor efficiency.