Use performance monitoring to make your nutrition dollars worth it

Feed is the most expensive input on a dairy farm.
Dairy operations typically incur annual feed expenses amounting to $1,000 to $1,200 per cow per year. That’s $100,000-$120,000 in purchased and homegrown feed expense per year for a 100-cow dairy, or $1 million-plus per year for a 1,000-cow operation.
Ask your spouse, accountant, lender or nutritionist if she/he thinks you are doing an adequate job of monitoring and controlling this major expense on your farm.
In my experience, a few good managers are doing a good job of meeting the nutritional needs of their cows most of the time.
Most could do a lot better job of controlling feed costs while providing more consistent nutrition to their herds.
Strong case. An interesting paper presented at the Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference this month in Fort Wayne, Ind., makes a strong case for improved monitoring and more frequent adjustment of rations on most dairy farms.
Consultants Jim Barmore, Five Star Consulting, Verona, Wis., and Greg Bethard, G&R Dairy Consulting, Wytheville, Va., take the concept of “performance monitoring” from the typical monthly, quarterly or annual assessments to daily data collection and comparison to standards or benchmarks of performance.
They say that although the concept of performance monitoring is not new, considerable improvement in performance and profitability of herds can be achieved by daily, rather than monthly or quarterly, data collection and evaluation against standards of performance.
The idea. During the early 1990s, our extension Dairy Excel workshops presented the idea of daily monitoring and charting of per-cow milk production.
The idea was to learn how various factors influenced the day-to-day performance of cows, so that managers could produce more consistent cow performance.
Managers were taught to chart daily milk production and to keep notes on anything that could have influenced it.
We still receive requests from Dairy Excel graduates for the Cornell milk weight charting books.
In those same Dairy Excel workshops, we presented procedures for monitoring dry matter intake of cows, along with information on how to adjust rations on a daily basis to get more consistent feed consumption and more consistent milk production.
‘True value.’ Bill Weiss, extension dairy nutrition specialist, makes the statement about feeds and dairy cows: “You never know the true value of anything.”
What he means is, you never know exactly what protein or energy level is in the feeds coming out of storage on a given day.
The same concept holds true for most other parameters in a biological system such as a dairy farm.
Because nutrient content of feeds and weather and other factors in a production system vary so much from day to day, the best we can do is to frequently estimate what is happening and continually adjust based on the estimates.
Feed sampling and analysis provide estimates of what is being fed, not exact information.
Feed intake and dry matter consumption measurements provide estimates of what the cows are eating, but not exact data on any given cow.
Define. The first step in performance monitoring is to clearly define what you want to measure.
Computers have enabled us to generate huge quantities of information, but unless it is accurately collected it is useless.
Furthermore, the data must be easily generated and interpreted or else it will not be used.
Most importantly, the manager must collect, analyze and interpret information about important parameters of profitability, and make timely adjustments that result in better performance.
What should they be? According to Barmore and Bethard, performance monitors should:
1. be proactive,
2. be readily measurable,
3. impact improvement and profit,
4. minimize variation, bias, lag time and momentum, and
5. result in discussion and action.
Monitoring is a waste of time and effort if decisions or management interventions do not result.
Likewise, the longer an inaccuracy is allowed to continue, the more production is lost, cost is overrun, or profit is curtailed.
Accuracy. If you are going to measure dry matter intake of your cows, figure out how to get accurate data and then make it someone’s responsibility to collect feed fed and refusal information, calculate dry matter intake and chart it.
Only after these data are collected and evaluated can you make changes or “interventions” that result in more consistent dry matter intake and consequently result in a better balance of nutrients consumed compared to requirements.
More frequent adjustment of ration intake should result in more accurate nutrient balance over time.
The result should be better production, fewer metabolic imbalances, reduced feed costs and more profit.
The phrase “numbers don’t lie” should actually read: “Numbers don’t lie if properly interpreted in the context of normal biological process variation, and they are the correct numbers relative to the question at hand.”
Make it happen. You should now be asking, “OK, so how do I make this happen in a timely way in my operation?”
The simple answer is plan for it to happen, set up the proper system to make it happen, and monitor it to make sure it does happen.
Putting the system into effective practice and maintaining it is what we call management.
Critical. Dairy herd feeders should be some of the most meticulous, dedicated people anywhere on the farm.
Consistency in weighing, mixing and delivering rations is critical to good performance.
If consistency of the ration or individual ingredients changes, the entire mix must be adjusted, not just one ingredient.
Feeders must honestly measure feed refusal and other variables in order to accurately adjust rations on a daily basis.
Moisture content of forages coming out of a bunker silo can vary dramatically depending on weather conditions.
Feed refusal is feed not consumed, which means the ration is not in balance.
Nutritionist’s help. Work with your nutritionist to find out how to interpret feed refusal and make ration adjustments. Ask him or her how to adjust for dry matter fluctuations so that every cow gets a balanced ration every day.
Don’t be surprised if the nutritionist tells you (probably already has) that you need to sample feeds more often, push up feed more often during the day, do a more accurate job of weighing ingredients, or correct any of a dozen other “inconsistencies” in the management of your feeding program.
You pay this person to give you advice; he can’t do his job if you don’t make sure the rations are accurately prepared, delivered and actually consumed.
Principles. These same principles hold true for many other facets of management on your farm.
Breeding programs, replacement heifer management, labor relations, crop production, dry cow management, all can be brought under control with performance monitoring.
Figure out what must be measured, which data must be collected and analyzed and what system must be in place to make adjustments.
Lots of people stand ready to help you. Work with your veterinarian, nutritionist, extension educator, crop adviser and lender.
Discuss problems and possible solutions with your management team and labor force so that all are working together to improve performance of the business.
(The author is an agricultural extension educator in Columbiana County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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