Feeding costs — feed ingredients plus labor and equipment for mixing and delivering rations — typically add up to 40% or more of total operating costs on most dairies. Properly training feeders can go a long way in keeping costs under control, notes Herb Bucholtz, dairy nutrition specialist at Michigan State University.

Start by picking the right people for the job, advises Bucholtz.

“Not everyone is cut out to be a feeder,” he says. “You want to select people who are conscientious, detail-oriented and like math. If you put someone in the job who doesn't have an aptitude for it, they'll just get frustrated.”

John Freund, herd manager at the 530-cow Son-Bow Farms, Inc. near Spring Valley, WI, agrees with the attributes mentioned by Bucholtz and adds one more: “You need mental toughness to be a good feeder,” he says. “You need to be able to perform without a lot of supervision.”

John's brother, Ben, has been the feed manager/primary feeder at Son-Bow for two years. “He's impressed us,” says John. “He's not afraid to evaluate a given situation, take ownership and make a decision on the spot.”

Providing written job descriptions is one way to get top-notch performance from feeders, says Bucholtz. The job descriptions should be fairly elaborate and specific, spelling out things like when moisture testing will be done or when equipment will be serviced. He also recommends asking feeders for their input on what should be included in the job description.

“People who know what's expected of them perform better, period,” he says.

Good communication between feeders and management also helps feeders meet expectations.

“On most dairies, the farm office is located in the same building as the milking parlor, so employees in the milking center usually have some contact with management every day,” he notes. “But the feeder is often stuck out back and can easily go through a whole day without seeing anyone from the front office. Making it a point to have the manager or owner touch base with the feeder every day can go a long way in team building.”

Feeders should also have direct access to the dairy's nutritionist. Bucholtz points out that, on many dairies, meetings with the nutritionist are limited to top management — owner, manager, herdsman, etc. Feeders get left out, even though they're frontline troops — the people in the best position to spot changes in daily intakes, TMR sorting or changes in feed quality.

“A direct communication link between the nutritionist and feeder will help both do their jobs better and improve the overall feeding program,” says Bucholtz.

Making sure that employees have the equipment they need to do their job and that all equipment is kept in tip-top working order via routine maintenance is also critical.

“You can't expect great performance from employees if their equipment isn't operating well,” says Bucholtz.

Especially important, he adds, is having some kind of data recording system for tracking ingredient amounts being mixed at each feeding. Tracking that data, by hand or on a computer, helps management keep tabs on feeder performance. It also lets the nutritionist know whether the ration that's being formulated is the one being fed.

Along these lines, Son-Bow Farms makes use of a computer program called Feed Supervisor. John and Ben Freund make it a point to get together about once a month to review the data generated by the software.

“It gives us an idea of how well we're doing on meeting the feeding goals we've established and where we might need to make adjustments,” says John.