Because of $3.25-plus corn and despite high alfalfa hay prices, dairy producers will probably balance rations with more corn silage, high-quality hay and byproducts and less corn grain. So predicts Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois extension dairy nutritionist.

“With our current strong milk prices — they did get up to almost $22/cwt — we want to produce optimum levels of milk,” says Hutjens.“If it costs someone 20 bucks a ton more for alfalfa and a buck morea bushel for corn, his cows can make money on that deal.”

At the same time, producers will look for ways to hold feed costs down, agree Hutjens and Paul Dyk, dairy extension agent for Fond du Lac County, WI.

“Any time feed prices get higher, people look at the alternatives a little bit more,” Dyk says. “They start to look at the distillers world and how they can incorporate it. I think a lot of operations in the Midwest thatare close to a distillers plant will use wet distillers where possible because the price is right.”

But producers should also be sure to feed a consistent product.

“We don't want to be taking ingredients in and out of diets quickly because the cows don't respond well to that. They usually lose some milk production,” he adds. “If you're going to be making changes, think over a six-month horizon, not just what you're going to do for the next two weeks. Byproduct feeds need to be chosen carefully.”

Hutjens says prices for fuzzy cottonseed, a forage extender, have jumped. And producers who usually use wheatlage as a forage source may have less of it because the infamous Easter freeze stunted growth. Soybean meal may also be an expensive option.

“But I think the wild card is corn silage. It's one way to use some of the distressed corn crop and it's a good forage source,” Hutjens says.“I would look at a higher corn silage-based program.”

Dyk adds that dairymen should work to add higher-quality hay or haylage to the diet. “If your alfalfa is $140/ton and soybean meal is $240/ton, the protein isn't equivalent, but if you can swap them because you don't need that extra protein and can get a little bit more fiber, it makes sense to do that.”

Dairymen should look at the amount of protein being fed, he says. “We used to feed cows a diet that was 18.5-19% crude protein and now we're seeing a lot more diets being balanced for 16.5-17% crude protein. And we're seeing the same or better milk production. By not overfeeding those cows, we can feed more forage, which gives us a healthier cow and cuts our feed costs.”

A higher percentage of forage dry matter, up to 60%, is also being fed. “People are realizing, if they give cows a little bit of time, they'll adjust to high-forage diets and they'll milk well,” Dyk says.

Producers, adds Hutjens, will try to stretch starch as far as they can in feeding programs.

“We are still recommending, and without having new research, 22-26% starch. But a number of farmers are asking, ‘Can I cheat that corn more?’ I think the answer is ‘Yes,’if the carbohydrate is fermentable in the rumen. Using more byproduct feeds and highly digestible forages may help,” Hutjens says.

Producers and nutritionists could make good use of rumen model programs this year, he says. “We're trying to predict what the cow's rumen is going to do with hay that may be drought-stressed, or corn silage that may be a little bit low in starch.” Such computer programs include NRC 2001, AminoCow, CPM-Dairy and a new model version of Spartan, called Spartan 3, which should be available later this year.

Tools to help predict how digestible the neutral detergent fiber will be, plus sugar, starch and fiber analyses, could be made good use of as well, Hutjens says.

Whenever feed prices spike, says Dyk, “people always look for places to cut corners. There may be some expensive additives they want to cut out. But, in general, nutritionists are truly trying to keep the costs down regardless of what the milk price is. So there may not be a lot of opportunity to take out grain and put in more forage - or just cut something out. Because then milk production will probably be reduced.”

Work To Get The Most Milk

This may be the year to work harder on ration balancing to get that last 5 lbs of milk from your cows, says Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois extension dairy nutritionist.

Milk prices are up, and more than the usual amount of hot weather accentuated the summer production slump in much of the country. In August, heat stress lowered milk production by 10-20% across much of the Midwest and southeastern U.S., Hutjens points out.

“And a number of schools have changed their policies on sodaor pop, now going to more nutritive beverages, such as fruit juices and lowfat milks. That is going to hopefully strengthen demand for lowfat milk.

“So a farmer wants to get as good a ration as he can but not overfeed or overinvest. He doesn't want to hold back his good cows on milk production,” Hutjens says.

The dairy nutritionist advises producers to use ration-balancing software and examine nutrient analyses closely.

“I think it (ration balancing) will be a challenge, but the challenge will be on the upside compared to that of a year ago, when milk prices were really low.“

For information on different rumen model programs available, see “Model Rations,” September 2006 issue of Hay & Forage Grower, or visit hayandforage.com and type “Model Rations” in the search box.