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Five ways to simplify and optimize your diet

Daniel Scothorn for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 March 2019
Lactating diets are often found to contain over 30 different ingredients

Regardless of the type of feeding system you have, there are many opportunities to declutter your ration, putting more money in your pocket and simplifying your life.

Ration clutter comes in many forms, such as multiple protein and starch sources, overfeeding minerals, redundant feeds and antagonizing ingredients. Clutter can slowly creep into your rations over many years.



For example, your hoof trimmer requests the addition of biotin or zinc, your vet requests doubling the selenium or vitamin E, or your feed adviser suspects mycotoxins resulting in addition of a toxin-binder.

Lactating diets are often found to contain over 30 different ingredients. However, the dairy cow evolved on three sources of nourishment: grassland, water and dirt.

Perfect is not necessary; 90 percent is good enough. While decades of research have nearly perfected nutritional models, such as the Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System (CNCPS), not every modern dairy cow is meeting her genetic potential for milk production.

Meeting full potential requires ideal forage and grains, good health and the right environment. Trying to achieve a perfect ration is not only expensive from a cost perspective, but is time-consuming. This is because of the law of diminishing returns.

As an example, a farm striving to perfect the ration may still not be achieving full genetic potential because of other factors being ignored, such as lameness, missed breedings or uncomfortable stalls.


In any case, farm managers should strive to find the biggest bottlenecks before trying to perfect another aspect of the farm.

Feed cost accounts for a large chunk of your monthly milk cheque. Feed cost as a percent of milk sales is an excellent way to gauge competitiveness.

It can be calculated easily by totaling the value of all forages and concentrates fed to the lactating herd, subtracting refusals and then dividing it by the milk sales. Follow these strategies to declutter your ration:

1. Remove protein ingredients

Multiple protein sources in a lactating diet may not be needed. From a nutritional perspective, meeting protein requirements involves providing adequate rumen-degradable protein and metabolizable protein. One or two sources of protein can come close to meeting this need when diets are based on grass and legumes.

Canola meal and soybean meal are similar in that they are both high in crude protein (40 percent and 53 percent dry matter basis), supply lysine and are easily available. Choose one of these as the primary protein source in your ration.

 A second protein source is often fed to provide additional amino acids or energy, such as corn or wheat distillers grains, or add ration palatability. High levels of milk production can be achieved with one or two protein sources.


2. Use one source of starch

When rations contain corn silage, one additional starch form may be all that is needed. Barley, wheat or corn (high-moisture or dry) should be considered in this case.

Calculating the cost per unit of starch from these sources should be the top consideration. Table 1 shows a comparison of commonly fed starch sources and the impact of cost per ton per unit of starch.

Conceptual cost per unit of starch of grain sources

There may be little value in providing a third source of dietary starch beyond what is provided by corn silage and the main source, unless there are quality issues such as poor processing or mold. Don’t get caught up in the hype of feeding two different sources of starch because the cow needs it.

Once again, there will only be a benefit if the original source is not ground fine enough most of the time. Also, the use of homegrown or locally purchased starch sources should be maximized only if cost per ton permits.

3. Cut straw out

When manure becomes too soft, or butterfat declines, straw is often added to increase ration fibre and reduce acidosis. Straw is usually a purchased ingredient priced between $150 and $300 per ton, and therefore should be heavily weighed against other long-term solutions.

When feeding low-fibre legume or BMR corn silage, it may be hard to provide adequate fibre. Take a look at other ways to reduce acidosis, such as preventing empty feed mangers and gorging at feeding time, adding water or reducing particle size to reduce sorting or increasing dietary fibre percent with more good-quality forage.

Mid-maturity grass silage (acid detergent fibre of 33 to 35 percent) provides excellent effective fibre and a good way to improve cud chewing, and can often be homegrown within legume mixtures or as stand-alone crops on marginal land.

Straw can also be reduced in controlled energy dry cow diets (Goldilocks diet) by replacing with a mature, low-potassium grass silage such as reed canarygrass, timothy or any other thick-stem perennial grass.

4. Drop ‘nice-to-haves’

There may be well-justified situations where ingredients such as buffers, organic minerals, yeast products and toxin binders are in the diet. Take an honest look at the use of feed additives in your diet to determine what is a “must-have” versus a “nice-to-have.”

Feeding higher-than-required levels of vitamin E can cost up to 20 cents per cow daily at the present time. If vitamin E was added to reduce somatic cell count, then it is worth considering other preventative measures.

The cost of toxin binders can range from 10 to 25 cents per cow daily, so feeds should be tested for toxins on a regular basis to determine whether they are really needed every year.

5. Drop antagonist feeds

There are many examples of antagonistic feed ingredients or, in other words, one ingredient is added to the diet because of the use of some other feed causing a detrimental response.

Feeding palmitic acid at high levels (500 grams) to counter a milkfat depression caused by the use of high levels of corn distillers grains is one common example.

The use of straw or heavy levels of buffer to prevent milkfat depression because of the feeding of very low-fibre forage is another situation.

In both of these cases, there may be management improvements that can be made, but a stronger focus on the haylage maturity and species is the best way to reduce cost and numbers of ingredients.

Taking steps to declutter your ration can be rewarding. It can save time related to negotiations, ordering and inventory management, but also cost related to less shrinkage and diet cost reductions.

Focusing on 90 percent right versus perfect is a good management skill not only in rations but also in many other aspects of your operation.  end mark

PHOTO: Lactating diets are often found to contain over 30 different ingredients. However, the dairy cow evolved on three sources of nourishment: grassland, water and dirt. Photo provided by Daniel Scothorn.

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Other considerations

  • Focus on milk urea nitrogen to minimize supplemental protein. Aim for a milk urea nitrogen level of 8 to 10 in the bulk tank. Reduce protein when milk urea nitrogen is greater than 10. This allows more room in the diet for forage or starch.

  • Test manure starch content to determine if your starch source is adequately processed. Aim for 3 percent or less manure starch. If you have more than 5 percent, then a finer grind or rolling is needed.

  • Score the manure in your milking herd. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is diarrhea, 3 is perfect and 5 is like horse manure, aim to have most cows around 3. If there is variability, then sorting is an issue. If most are scoring 4, then there is opportunity for more ration energy density or protein.

  • Take a look at the mineral contribution of protein feeds such as canola meal when formulating an optimized diet. The savings can be significant when considered. Also, take a regular look at the diet levels of expensive minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus and vitamins A, D and E. Overfeeding these nutrients can cost thousands per year on a typical dairy farm.