Weather and market factors create feeding challenges for dairy producers most years, but 2008 might rank among the toughest, says Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois extension dairy nutritionist.

“There are several hot-button issues in play right now,” says Hutjens. “These include an abundance of poor-quality, first-cutting alfalfa in the Midwest, the potential for an early frost, softening milk prices and, depending on how the grain harvest shapes up, the possibility of corn returning to $6-7/bu.”

He recommends that dairy producers and nutritionists consider using his “55-30-15” formula when balancing rations in the coming months. The 55 in the formula refers to his recommended percentage of forage dry matter in the ration.

“That percentage of forage dry matter, which comes out to 28 lbs/cow/day, is what's commonly used, not only in the Midwest, but in the rest of the country, too,” he says.

The 30 is the percentage of concentrate and can consist of corn, barley, soybean meal, distiller-s grain, vitamins, minerals and maybe some fat.

“With 85% of the ration locked in, producers now have the final 15%, or 7-8 lbs of dry matter, to work with, and that can fluctuate based on feed prices, quality and availability,” says Hutjens. “But whatever they choose to feed, they can't break the golden rule of dairy production — never sacrifice milk production or milk components at today's prices.”

For high-producing cows, he recommends that some of that 15% be devoted to a nutrient-dense ingredient, such as fat, heat-treated soybean products or corn grain. But for the balance of the herd he recommends feeding more forages.

“Now's the time for more forages in the ration to combat rising grain prices,” he says. “Generally speaking, forages are cheaper per unit of energy or cheaper per unit of protein vs. corn grain and soybean meal in the feeding program.”

But he cautions that using forages to comprise that final 15% only makes good sense if they're high quality, such as corn silage with an NDF digestibility percentage in the mid-50s on a 30-hour fermentation profile and 30% starch. Alfalfa with a relative forage quality index of 150-170 qualifies, too.

He says limiting corn silage to 75% of the total forage dry matter is a safe guideline. “I know of producers who feed 100% of their total forage dry matter as corn silage, but that makes me a little bit nervous.”

If rations are that high in corn silage, the silage must be processed — and chopped at the correct particle length.

“Because some processed corn silage is not chopped correctly, it fails to maintain a rumen forage mat,” says Hutjens. “And feeding that much corn silage also requires a balanced amino acid profile and balanced starch fermentation rates to avoid acidosis.”

If producers don't have access to high-quality forages, they could feed 2-3 lbs of moderate-quality forage along with byproduct feeds to make up the final 7-8 lbs of dry matter, he says. Depending on location, those byproducts could include soy or almond hulls, citrus or beet pulp, corn gluten feed or wheat midds.

When feeding byproducts, he reminds producers and nutritionists to “monitor total NDF levels to manage rumen-fill limitations and rumen fermentable carbohydrate levels (soluble fiber, starch and sugar) to keep rumen microbial growth at optimal levels.”

Finally, he says producers need to remain flexible with feeding programs in the coming months as they strive to strengthen their bottom lines.

“In the future, we could see rations with up to 70% forage dry matter if top-quality forages are used because of the cost of corn grain and protein supplements,” says Hutjens. “While I'm not optimistic that I'll ever see oil priced at $50/barrel again, I'm not sure I'll ever see corn priced at $2.50/bu again, either.”