How Does Forage Quality Affect Ration Costs

Nate Goeldi, Dairy Production Specialist, Purina Animal Nutrition (507)-271-1718

There is one question that I have been asked on every farm that I work with in the last two years of starting at All-American Co-op Progressive Ag Center. That question is “When should I harvest _______?”. That blank has been anything from hay to corn silage and even the occasional sorghum and triticale.  My answer to those customers is always the same, “It Depends”. I know that farmers don’t like hearing that answer, but the answer to that question truly does depend. It depends on the goals you hope to achieve with the forage you are harvesting, whether it be tonnage, quality, or production. Then shortly after that first question is asked a second question is asked; “How do I cheapen up the ration?”. This is a great question to be asking during the low margin times in the milk markets. Dr. Andy Mueller, who is a technical support Ph.D. for Purina Animal Nutrition, took a deeper look at the second question and how it was connected to the first question.

               Dr. Mueller started by looking to see if there was a trend in the herds that he works with by setting all the diet ingredients to the same price to eliminate purchase variation. He assumed, like I did, that higher quality forages automatically meant high milk production and low costs. Here is the data he pulled out from 4 of his herds. (Figure 1)

Figure 1

What Dr. Mueller learned from this first exercise was that most of the rations he balances are between 9-12 cents/lb DMI regardless of milk production and forage quality. This meant that we should not assume that high milk production meant lower feed cost/cwt or that lower milk production means higher feed cost/cwt. Dr. Mueller concluded that milk production is way too management and facility dependent to look at costs across herds.  Ultimately, it is more beneficial to look at changes made on your own farm.

               Second Dr. Mueller looked at changing the quality of forages in the diets to look at feed costs. He took a conventional haylage sample that sampled at 147 RFQ and a Harvxtra haylage sample that sampled at 201 RFQ and compared equally on an AF basis (Figure 2).

Figure 2

As you can see the higher quality haylage is carrying more energy per pound and less undigestible fiber. The undigestible fiber will cause rumen fill and decrease DMI potential.  Then Dr. Mueller wanted to know how many lbs. of AF Harvxtra it would take to equal the same undigestable fiber as 10 lbs. of poorer quality haylage (Figure 3).

Figure 3

The higher quality haylage allows us to feed 3 more pounds of as fed haylage before we reach the same amount of undigestable fiber and increases the energy per pound utilized from home grown forage. Then Dr. Mueller did a similar comparison on a conventional corn silage and a BMR corn silage. He came up with similar results as the haylage
(Figure4 & 5).


Figure 4                                                                                                                                               


Figure 5

Finally, after the comparisons of the high-quality forages to the lower quality forages was complete Dr. Mueller put together some diets with both lower quality forages in the ration and both high quality forages in the ration. When he put the higher quality forage ration together he had a total ration cost of $4.77/head with purchased feed cost totaling $3.17/head. This ration consisted of about 63% forage and was about 5% fat. Then he put the poorer quality forages in the ration and came up with a total ration cost of $4.83/head with purchased feed cost totaling $3.58. This ration consisted of 53% forage and was about 6% fat.  The total ration cost only changed about 6 cents between the high-quality forage diet and low quality forage diet, which means that the cost per lb. DMI was equal at 9 cents for both rations. However, the purchased feed cost increased by $0.41/ head. Whether you are working with your banker, farm business manager, or accountant, this figure will throw up a big red flag. Producing higher quality forages allow you to feed more home-grown forage and less purchased feed. The Animal Nutrition team at All American Co-op Progressive Ag Center is highly trained to help our producers and customers make smart decisions on forages and feed decisions. We are knowledgeable in all areas of forages from application to harvest and ensiling as well as ration balancing to make your farm as profitable as possible. If you have more questions about how to improve your forage quality please contact one of the nutrition experts at All American Co-op Progressive Ag Center. I also would like to wish everyone a safe and bountiful harvest and look forward to talking with some of you about improving forage quality. 

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