Volatile feed prices are making it difficult for dairy farmers to get a handle on feed costs, especially those who purchase most of their feed.
In the past 15 months, prices for corn, soybean meal, cottonseed and several other commodities have been rising so quickly, it's hard for experts to project what prices are going to do month to month much less throughout the year. However, most are confident prices will continue to go up due to the escalating export and ethanol demand.
"Back when milk was $11.50 per hundred and corn was $2 a bushel or less, it was easy – we just fed corn to everything," explains Pat Hoffman, Extension dairy herd management specialist at the Marshfield Ag Research Station.
"Milk prices have gone up, but so have feed prices. When you look at the milk-price-feed ratio, it hasn't moved much in the past year," Hoffman says. "It still pays to feed corn, but we can't even figure out what to put on corn for a price."
With corn bringing over $4 a bushel, dairy producers have to feed corn differently now, Hoffman says.
"Corn used to be the cheapest feed we had. Now you can't afford to waste it," he explains. "If you overfed some corn and it went through the cow and you spread it on the field, it was no big deal. That's not true anymore."
As a result, least-cost rations are lower in starch.
"Back when we had cheap corn, we got used to feed rations that were 25% to 30% starch," he says. "Now it's like Limbo – how low can we go? How little corn or starch can we feed?"
Hoffman says dairy farmers can feed rations with as little as 21% to 22% starch, but there are some challenges.
"You have to keep the particle size small and grind the corn finer to increase digestibility," he explains. "Floury corn is good."
Also, it's important that corn silage be processed early, not late, to boost digestibility.
"Last fall, the silage dried down all and once and a lot silage in Wisconsin got put up too dry," he says.
Even with high-priced corn, Hoffman says one way to stretch your feed dollar further is to feed more corn silage. But when you increase corn silage in the ration, you will need:
• more crude protein supplement
• less corn
• more byproduct fiber supplement
• less fat supplement
• more chopped hay or straw
• more cow diet groups
• more dietary buffer
• more calcium, magnesium and potassium
"Up to two-thirds to three-fourths of your forages can be corn silage," Hoffman says, "but don't go over three-fourths," he cautions.
Think outside the box
Consider feeding any alternative to corn that you can.
"If it isn't walking and looks like feed, you should consider it," Hoffman says.
Some corn alternatives include:
• pizza crust
• bakery waste
• citrus pulp
• beet pulp
• soybean hulls
• malt sprouts
• potato waste
"Evaluate prices related to corn," he says. "I could figure that for you, but it (prices) will be obsolete tomorrow."
One thing is clear, Hoffman notes, when it comes to balancing rations and feeding a least-cost ration, it pays to be flexible.
"Soybean prices could drop and wheat could go up," he says. "It's important to not be married to the same ration like we used to be. With milk prices where they are and feed prices going up, we need to be open minded."
Fond du Lac County Extension Dairy and Livestock Agent Paul Dyk echoes Hoffman's advice.
"You may start feeding soy hulls and then two weeks from now, the price of soy hulls shoots up," Dyk says. "Then you'll have to back soy hulls out of the ration."
Dyk cautions that it's OK to make minor adjustments to rations, but don't go overboard.
"I don't think you should be changing your ration drastically," Dyk says. "It's OK to tweak it but don't make the changes over one day. Do it over a week or 10 days."
Dyk suggests it's important to make the most of what you have.
"Use silage inoculants to get a little better fermentation so you're not wasting feed," Dyk says.
He also says it's important to make sure scales are working so you're not wasting feed.
"You want to be adding the correct amount," he explains. "You don't want your scale to be off by a couple hundred pounds so you're feeding more corn or protein that you need to."