Low milk prices have forced many dairy producers to cut feed costs at the expense of balanced rations, says Bill Sanchez, a technical services director with Diamond V Mills, Inc., Tigard, OR. He suggests several strategies for deciding what to put back into diets to keep cows healthy and maintain or increase milk production.

“A lot of herds focused on short-term profits for survival. Whole mineral programs were being pulled out, so obviously they're down on essential nutrients,” says Sanchez, who works with dairy producers across the Western U.S.

Before making ration changes, consider how the ration is currently prepared and delivered, suggests Sanchez. He recommends monitoring dry matter intake in every group, every day and mixing different rations for various lactation stages. That way, ingredients can be added back according to lactation needs — and taken out when not needed.

Producers can also better manage expensive push-outs. “That's pretty high-quality feed still and we're pushing it out and feeding it to heifers or dry cows? I think there are good strategies to blend that in.” Test how much push-out can be blended and fed to later-lactation groups without hurting milk production.

Clean out bunks daily to keep feed from heating and reducing intake, he says.

Also audit the TMR to find and eliminate sources of variation. Using a Penn State Forage Particle Separator, check the beginning, middle and end of a load to determine its consistency. The consistency may be improved by changing knives and replacing shoe pads in the TMR mixer.

Check your feed inventory and look for ways to reduce shrink losses; that gives producers instant cash flow, he says. Monitor feed efficiency, too. Most herd goals are 1.4-1.6 calculated as milk or fat-corrected milk divided by dry matter intake.

Essential nutrients are just that — essential to a cow's health. The sooner they're back in pared-down rations, the better a cow will produce, Sanchez says.

“Energy is one of the first ingredients to get back in these rations,” he adds. To compare the value of nutrients and energy, he advises using a program like the University of Wisconsin's Feedval spreadsheet (www.uwex.edu/ces/dairynutrition/spreadsheets.cfm) or Ohio State University's Sesame and Ping Pong software (www.sesamesoft.com).

Good-quality forages are a top priority, he says.

“If there's no way to purchase higher-quality forages, let's make what we have better. Let's make sure silage faces are in good shape and we're not feeding spoiled feed.” Also check the dry matter content of all silages and other high-moisture ingredients daily, then adjust rations as needed to maintain dry matter intake.

Feed additives should be considered despite marketing claims promising “products that are supposed to cure everything known and even bring cows back to life.” They can help manage various digestive, metabolic and immunity challenges, he says.

But producers beware — evaluate additives backed by pure, objective research. He also encourages visiting additive companies like Diamond V Mills to see what kind of quality control or research and development they have.

In evaluating additives, be cautious of what Sanchez calls “overlapping technologies.” Using three products in which each promises an additional 3 lbs of milk won't guarantee 9 lbs of milk. Many products work the same way. Adding one product may produce that 3 lbs, but adding a second product will probably not get the same result.

He suggests viewing Feed Additives: Which, When, and Why, by Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois dairy nutritionist. It can be found at www.livestocktrail.uiuc.edu/dairynet/paperDisplay.cfm?ContentID=9999.