During times of low milk prices, many dairy veterinarians and nutritionists are asked for recommendations to reduce costs and improve profitability.

Because feed costs are the single greatest expense to the dairy, this is often the first place dairy farmers look to reduce costs. If the nutritionist can reduce feed costs and not reduce milk production or milk components, it is obvious that they are not doing their job with the utmost diligence. Therefore, reducing feed costs enough to make a difference without having an adverse effect on production and components is usually not an option.

The next option is often trying to “save our way into profitability” by taking things out of the ration that might be considered extras or additives. Because minerals are often the single most expensive part of the ration, they are often considered first as a means of reducing ration costs.

I have observed many dairies that have reduced the amount of minerals fed or even completely taken them out of the ration. In most cases, there are little to no immediate consequences.

However, several months later, some issues start showing up: increases in lameness, decreases in reproductive efficiency, increases in mid-lactation milk fevers, poor hair coat, animals eating dirt, drinking urine from other animals and so on.

Once these problems show up, minerals are often put back into the ration. However, the problems that were created from a lack of adequate mineral nutrition will not disappear immediately once the mineral is put back into the ration. Some of the issues, such as reproductive efficiency or lameness, might take close to a year before the animal returns to normal.

What to do?

So what can be done to reduce feed costs without causing some of the issues previously discussed? One of the most important factors is feed efficiency. Most dairy farmers today do not know this figure because they do not have an exact number for the actual dry matter intake per cow in each pen.

Calculating feed efficiency requires feed refusals from each pen be weighed and subtracted from the amount of feed that was given. The average milk weight per cow in each pen must also be known in order to calculate the feed efficiency.

As an example, if the average milk production in a pen of cows is 80 lb., and the average dry matter intake of that pen is 50 lb., then the feed efficiency is 1.6 lb. of milk per pound of feed. If your feed efficiency is low, ways to modify it can be discussed with your nutritionist. Improvements in feed efficiency will then add a significant improvement to your bottom line.

Again, however, it is important to be wary about making changes that could possibly result in short- or long-term adverse effects on milk production or herd health.

Purchased forages should be analyzed for NDF digestibility and should also go through a nutrient analysis. Forages may have the same relative feed value, but one lot of forage may have a much higher NDF digestibility than another, which can greatly improve feed efficiency.

Purchasing feeds is another way money can be saved. Many dairy farmers have developed close relationships with those they have purchased feed from for many years. Perhaps it is time to look around for price quotes from other brokers to see if there is an opportunity to save on major feed purchases.

Finally, look at your milk pricing formula from your milk plant. Could you improve profitability by increasing components? A significant bonus also might be received if milk quality were improved by lowering somatic cell count, bacteria count and so on.