Taking Control of Feed Costs

Dr. Normand St-Pierre, Dairy Management Specialist, Ohio State University Extension (top of page)

I remember thinking that $3.00/bu for corn was outrageous, that $300/ton for soybean meal was a rip-off, and that $200/ton for cottonseed must have been a revenge of the Confederates. How much I would like to see these prices again!

We've had high corn prices in the past; we've experienced high soybean meal and cottonseed prices also. Some years, hay has been very expensive as well. But, we were getting hit with only one calamity at a time. When hay was expensive, corn was cheap. What is unique about the current upsurge in feed prices is that all prices went up. And based on the current supply and demand situation, it is unlikely that we will see cheap feeds anytime soon. So what is a dairy producer to do?

  1. Cows do not require corn, soybean meal, or cottonseed. Cows require nutrients and these are supplied by feeds. There are an infinite number of rations that can be put together to provide the same supply of nutrients, and thus, result in the same level of production. This is, in fact, the essence of applied nutrition science. Cows do not have a requirement for corn. So when corn is expensive, you can substitute some or all of the corn by a combination of other feeds. For example, the results of two well-controlled experiments have shown that cows milk just the same even when all the corn that made up 40% of the ration was substituted by barley. A good, professional nutritionist can be of great help to put together a good ration that is also cost effective.
  2. Relax the ration formulation constraints on starch and non-fiber carbohydrates (NFC) levels. The recommended levels used by many nutritionists were generated in an era of cheap corn. The production response to starch and NFC is not large. When we aggregated the results from four well-controlled studies, we found that the optimum level of starch was somewhere between 24 and 41% of the ration dry matter (DM). The optimum NFC was between 37 and 49% of DM. These are hardly tight and narrow boundaries!
  3. What was cheap last month may no longer be cheap. Feeds prices keep jockeying for room in livestock rations. Two years ago, soybean hulls were very cheap, about 1/3 the price of corn. Today, they sell at over 80% of corn prices; they are severely over-priced. So unless you have a very good reason for using soybean hulls, they should not be part of your dairy rations right now. Even at a price close to $6.00/bu, corn is currently a bargain compared to many other feeds. Last spring, at $3.25/bu, corn was actually overpriced.
  4. Feed more forage of better quality. A large dataset from California showed that the difference between a fair quality corn silage (average of 46.5% NDF) and a very good quality corn silage (average of 39% NDF) resulted in an income difference of $91.50/100 cows/day. That's a lot of dough entirely within your reach.
  5. Know what you are feeding. How often do you sample your forage for laboratory testing? How often do you check the moisture in your silages? Our research at Ohio State has shown that forages are sampled too infrequently on most of our farms. An optimal sampling schedule can generate an extra $90/cow/year. When feed prices go up and the profit margins are squeezed, it is very tempting to cut on the feed testing expenses. The opposite should be done to ensure that the rations fed are as close as possible to the rations that were formulated.

You can't control market prices of feeds, but there are ways to reduce the impact of high feed prices on your farm.