Strategic Rationing: thinking beyond price per tonne

With unprecedented pressure on dairy finances, it is all too easy to look at cheaper alternatives to the biggest cost on farm – feed.

Cheaper feed ingredients are becoming more and more common on farm, with offers that sound too good to be true – and they are!

Dairy Cows eatingThe fundamental synergy between science and economics of feeding dairy cows stand to reason in times of low milk value, as much as high times. In fact, the importance of maximising margins through the most efficient feeding strategies become more imperative in a low milk price to retain any slim margin that does exist.

The cow’s ability to efficiently extract energy from forage is the fundamental base for profitable milk production. The more efficient this process can be, the more margin can be made per milk sale. This feed efficiency is influenced by herd health, lameness, cow comfort, fertility and nutrition, all of which are no less important than the next.

For this reason, nutritional demands of dairy cows must be met to recover a margin and sustainably continue to produce milk. The cheapest and most effective way to fuel a cows nutritional demands will always be forage. Quality forage increases palatability of the ration and reduces the need for concentrates to meet energy demand, which further reducing feed costs per litre produced.

With quality forages as a base, the role of concentrates can provide a return on investment, increasing production over a fixed cost base, balancing shortfalls in on farm forages and providing a marginal return even at low prices. The most efficient concentrates to use will be ones that maximise forage intake.

NDF in the rumen is most valuable when it has a physically effective role, providing structure in the rumen mat, stimulating cudding and being digestible to yield energy for rumen microbes. The smaller the difference between forage NDF and total ration NDF, the more efficient the ration will be and the more milk from forage will be achieved.

Unlike monogastrics, ruminant’s intakes are limited not by calories, but by rumen tension or capacity. Therefore any purchased feed with a higher level of NDF to energy density, or lower total digestibility, without having any physically effective (pe)NDF, will be detrimental to forage intake.Wynnstay-1

The impact of this is that a higher feed rate will be needed to supply the same level of nutrients to the rumen, not only increasing the total diet cost, but also reducing forage intake, so further increasing the need to feed concentrates to make up the energy short fall and increasing total ration cost.

To calculate this effect on a ration by ration basis, the total digestible protein or ME of the feed needs to compared to benchmark products like soya or barley. By doing this, a relative feed cost can be calculated for a feed and a ration to aid buying decisions.

The true value of a feed is fully displayed when it is formulated within a ration, as the opportunity cost of feeding higher levels of NDF or indigestible protein can be fully evaluated. Table 1 shows two hypothetical rations. The first ration has ‘expensive’ ingredients costing £201/t, with the ‘cheap ingredients, making the blend cost £145/t. Although there is a headline saving of a massive £56/t, when feed rates and potential milk sales are considered, the more expensive concentrates lower feed costs. This in turn allows the cow to eat more forage, reducing feed costs and potentially leading to better rumen health

Table 1 shows a comparison of two rations, one made of high quality, more expensive ingredients and one with cheaper ingredients. Rations are compared based on the same total ration dry matter intake, satisfying ME and MPE requirements. The high level of NDF in the cheap blend, 10573g/head/day would restrict intakes compared to the ration with higher quality ingredients, with a total NDF of 7013 potentially reducing milk yield. Milk yield is calculated to be higher by 2 litres on the more expensive blend and total cost of purchased feed to be 9% lower, at 5.1ppl compared to 5.6ppl with the cheaper ration.

The cheaper ration also has a higher risk of poor rumen function associated with it, as the ration provides les physically effective fibre for rumination and to form the rumen matt.


Table 1

  Ration A Ration B
 cost £201 £145
ingredients Soya Meal Palm Kernel
  Maize Soya Hulls
  Wheat Wheatfeed
  Sunflower meal
protein 21% 21%
energy 13.8ME 11.3ME
DMI (KG) 23 23
forage DMI 14 10.4
Concs. Fed (fresh) 8 12.5
% forage fed 68 52
NDF from forage 6300 4274
total NDF 7013 10573
Milk yield 39.3 37.3
COPF (ppl) 5.1 5.6

High forage, low concentrate feeding strategies are reliant on good quality silages and ample supply.

Considering current markets, it may be wise to run with a lower stocking rate to feed cows with the most potential more cost effectively, than keeping barns full and stretching forage stocks.

When looking at feeding strategies it is imperative to fully consider the value of feeds relative to alternatives and their role as a part of the overall ration. It is all too easy to be drawn in by cheaper pound per tonne feeds, but anything that restricts the ability for the cow to eat more forage is detrimental to feed profitability.

Feeding strategies in times of such financial pressure must consider the whole picture, as production may well have to stay above a certain level to cover fixed costs. Challenge your feed supplier to feed your cows for less – but less per litre of milk sold, not necessarily less per tonne of feed.

Written by Mark Price  – Dairy Specialist
Follow @m_priceo
For more information contact

Leave a Reply