High grain prices have forced dairy producers to make rather substantial changes in what and how much they feed their animals, observes Randy Shaver, University of Wisconsin dairy scientist.

Shaver has surveyed top Wisconsin dairies every three years since 2004, taking “snapshots” of their production and ration composition data. Here is a synopsis of the changes he’s seen from the first study of six herds to the 2007 three-herd and 2010 five-herd surveys.

“There is clearly an emphasis now on trying to get as much out of your forage as you can,” he says. “We’ve had almost a doubling in corn prices, and soybean meal prices are substantially higher as well. Corn silage is often priced off of corn, so the price of it and all forage has increased as well.”

Dairy rations seem to be shifting more toward forages, with corn silage as a major component.

“In these top herds, we’re still seeing quite a reliance on corn silage,” he says. “At least here in the Midwest, it is a crop that we can get off pretty quickly, has a high yield per acre, and a pretty high energy value. It has corn grain in it, so it’s displacing some starch that you have to purchase from corn.”

Grasses, seeded into alfalfa, are garnering a lot of interest in the Midwest, he says. “We’ve clearly got higher-quality grasses now than we did years ago – grasses that match the maturity of alfalfa a little bit better.

“A few of our survey herds did have some grasses in and thought that they improved the agronomics and maybe picked up some yield. The fiber in grass tends to be more digestible than alfalfa, so it seems to have worked pretty well in some of these feeding programs.”

Distillers grains’ use as supplements has been flat on a per-cow basis, he says. “There’s been some research with distillers showing that the high-fat, free-oil and linoleic-acid contents can have negative effects on milkfat. And there are also some issues with amino-acid profiles at high levels of supplementation.”

Whole cottonseed has become very expensive yet was still a common ingredient in a lot of high-production rations in 2010.

“I suspect producers like it for its fiber composition and that it helped them particularly when they were feeding lower-forage diets. With the high prices now, I sense quite a bit lower feeding rate of cottonseed. I know some herds have cut it out completely,” he says.

High-moisture corn is again becoming popular because of increased corn prices. “We’re seeing a lot more on-farm production and storage of corn and trying to knock out some of the middle-tier costs in the process.

“In 2010, even in these five high-producing herds, five out of five were feeding high-moisture corn; only one was feeding dry corn with it. Back in 2004, four out of six herds were feeding high-moisture corn and three out of six were feeding dry corn along with it.”

A third of the 2004 herds were feeding straw to lactating cows as part of their high-energy rations. But none of the five herd owners in 2010 felt the need for it, Shaver says.

That’s a reflection of increased straw prices; it’s in demand as bedding as well as roughage in dry-cow feeding programs, he adds.

“Then, also, as we try to cut back on starchy grains and feed more forage, there is simply less need for something like straw to slow rate of passage and give more effective fiber – because we feed a higher-percent forage in the diet.”

Shaver also sees more low-protein diets. “On average, these herds are down maybe a percent of crude protein, in the area of 16.5-17% for their high-group diets.”

Back in ’04, protein was as high as 18.5%. “The entire industry is trying to do a better job of supplementing protein. You just can’t afford to overfeed it.”

At the same time, there’s an increase in forage fiber content; ’04 herds’ NDF from forage was as low as 18% while 2010 herds’ lowest NDF from forage was 21%. “We see quite a few herds with 24% NDF from forage,” Shaver says.