Farming Magazine - June, 2010


Dairy Nutrition: Keeping Your Options Open

By John S. Hibma

The dairy industry is truly fascinating, and dairy farmers are an incredibly independent and resourceful lot. On any day I can visit any number of different dairy farms and I will observe any number of different ways to dairy. Even though the goal of every dairy farm is to produce milk, there’s no one standardized way to produce it as long as it meets regulatory standards. Most dairies milk cows on vacuum pipelines, but there are still some who milk into a bucket. One dairy is a pasture-based operation, another is a confined free-stall operation. One farm raises all of its forages and another purchases all of it. One dairy can produce 2,000 pounds of milk with 30 cows. Another dairy needs 50 cows to produce the same 2,000 pounds. We all look at things differently. What is right for one person is wrong for another. What may be acceptable for one will be unacceptable for another.

I grew up in the milk shed of Southern California where the large dairy farm mentality had its birth. I seriously had no idea how an upright silo worked until I was over 40 years old. Dairy farmers there saw that it was to their economic advantage to focus on just cows, not growing crops and milking cows, just milking cows. Alfalfa was king, and there was a nearly unlimited supply of it just a few hours away in the irrigated desert. Oh, that the entire country could dairy as efficiently and profitably as the West, or so I thought.

On the opposite side of the continent, dairies are generally smaller in size, largely due to the challenges coming from topography and winter weather. Rainfall, on the other hand, is much more abundant, allowing farms to grow much of their own forages, mostly corn and grasses.

Two general philosophies prevail in the way in which dairies are operated:

1. Specialize in producing milk for the wholesale market with large herds. Most of these dairies are highly leveraged with sizable capital investments.

2. Dairy on a smaller scale, utilizing local forages as a way to offset purchased feed costs with the owner and family members doing most of the dairy work as well as the cropping.

Hybrids that combine these two styles in varying degrees have emerged over the years. In all cases, though, regardless of how large or small or what the marketing approach may be, addressing feed costs is a primary focus of a dairy’s business model, because feed costs can make up a third to a half of total operating costs.

For New England dairy farmers to keep their dairies going in the next decade they will have to continue managing costs and improving efficiencies. The 21st century dairy farmer needs to regard and evaluate his or her operation from a business-oriented point of view, understand the importance of getting an acceptable return on investment from cows, facilities and equipment, and must know what aspects of the business generate the greatest income and which areas of cost will have the greatest impact on cash flow.

Manage your way to profitability rather than expect to get there by way of supply management programs and regulated milk prices. The managers of those dairies will realize the importance of high-quality forages. They will realize the importance of cow comfort and udder health. They understand the importance of transition cow nutrition and of low mortality rates in the replacement program. They will assemble a management team that provides answers, direction and professional expertise in reaching management goals.

As the national recession lingers many dairy farmers have had to rethink the way they feed their herds. Every decision regarding feed choices and feed costs have to be analyzed as to both its short-term and long-term effects on the financial stability of the business. Cows need to be fed properly balanced diets to produce milk. What a dairy feeds is primarily a function of what the region has to offer and what it costs to acquire that feed. It always boils down to cost and the financial return a dairy farmer makes back on that cost.

For dairyman Jeff Cone of Lebanon, Conn., surviving the economic crunch, to a large extent, can be attributed to his pastures. Cone milks about 45 Holsteins in a stanchion barn. The cows spend their winter days on a bedded pack adjacent to the barn, with feed bunks close by. The TMR (total mixed ration) diet consists of high-quality corn silage and hay, both grown by Cone, and a grain mix from the local feed company formulated to support over 70 pounds of milk production.

Even before the big bust in milk prices, Cone has been pasturing his milking herd during the spring, summer and fall and rotationally grazing them on various paddocks on the farm. With the nutrition coming from the grasses and clover, he is able to dramatically reduce his purchased feed usage for several months of the year. Adjustments are made in the diet depending on how the pastures hold up during the summer season. In some years the rainfall is abundant and the herd can’t keep up with the growth. Knowing that the feed value of overly mature grasses is quickly diminished, Cone will mow and bale some of the pastures when it’s necessary.

While it’s nearly impossible to operate a dairy farm successfully without some purchased protein, energy, and vitamin and mineral supplementation, focusing on high-quality forages offers an option to reduce, at least part of, the purchased feed costs. For many dairies in the Northeast, making the most of homegrown resources can help reduce costs to a point where milk revenue will cover them.

Every dairy farm has to take a close look at what sort of alternatives are available nearby. They need to find the right combination of inputs that will maximize return on investment depending on the seasons and feed availability. In today’s economy, being able to maintain some versatility and keeping the options open, especially when it comes to feeding milk cows, will help make the difference of whether a dairy can make it through the tough times.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Farmer’s Cooperative in Manchester, Conn. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.