Minimizing feed loss helps dairy's bottom line

Minimizing feed loss helps dairy's bottom line


FEED is a significant cost in milk production. Generally, more than 50% of production costs may be associated with meeting the nutritional requirements of the lactating cow.

Dairies monitor feed costs through feed ingredient purchases, feed delivery records and weigh-backs of refused feed. However, actual costs associated with shrinkage are often ignored.

At the 2014 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference held in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., Dr. David Beede, Michigan State University professor of animal science, outlined a variety of different influencers and management practices that affect feed shrink and loss.

Generally, shrinkage includes not only storage losses but also excessive inclusion rates in rations that are beyond what's necessary to meet the nutritional needs of the animal.

Causes may include wind, wildlife (e.g., birds and rodents), moisture or spoilage. Additionally, other contributors to shrinkage can be delivery weight errors, discarded feed, feed dispersed by tires and tracking and mixing errors.

According to Beede, equipment and where the feed is stored can be part of the problem. He pointed out that loader buckets can result in 1-5% feed loss and recommended that feedstuffs stored more than 250 ft. from the ration mixer should be moved closer. Furthermore, he pointed out that older augers in a feed mixer can result in a 65% variation in fiber content, while new augers may have only a 5% variation.

Beede also suggested that producers use more premixed batches. For example, if producers do a batch mix of more expensive ingredients, there will be less shrinkage because they are not going from one ingredient to another.

Beede said weather also influences feed shrink. While heat damage and rain are more common problems associated with feed shrink, wind is also something that can cause feed loss.

Past research at Kansas State University found that there is a cubic relationship between wind speed and particle movement. The study assumed that feed ingredients would begin moving at wind speeds greater than 5 mph and that feed particles would begin blowing away if stored in an open pile. The potential increase in feed losses due to wind was eight times greater at 10 mph than at 5 mph (Table).

To reduce wind loss, Beede suggested that producers consider pelleting or adding fat to the feed to increase the weight.

Consider the order of ingredients added to the mixer. Adding longer particle material first allows it to be broken up faster and more finely than if added last. Lighter and larger particles tend to move upward during mixing, while smaller, denser particles gravitate downward.

It was suggested that smaller quantities of perhaps more expensive ingredients be weighed in a smaller stationary mixer with more accurate scales prior to moving ingredients into a larger mixer.

While it seems like it would be a common practice, calibrating scales is not a routine exercise on most dairy farms. In fact, only a couple of farmers raised their hand when Beede asked the conference attendees whether they calibrate their scales regularly. Beede explained that expensive ingredients can really rack up the feed costs if scales have weight inaccuracies.

To calibrate the scale, Beede said to weigh it empty and then weigh it full. Or, he said to get two 200 lb. men to stand on each side or put weights on each side and see what the scale reads. A producer can also call the scale manufacturer to come out and calibrate the scale.

Beede asked the attendees, "How can you possibly measure shrink or how can you possibly fire your nutritionist because the ration was bad if you don't know if you weighed in the right amount of ingredients in the first place? How can you be a nutritionist and let someone put your special recipe into a wagon when you don't even know if the weights are correct?"

Beede said calibrating scales is a fundamental practice that needs to happen.

Michigan State University extension agent Phil Durst said at the workshop that feed shrink occurs at every step of the process, from cut to purchase to consumption by the cow. If proactive measures are not regularly pursued, feed shrink can mean a 5-30% loss of feed.

While feed prices aren't as high as they have been in recent years, Durst said every little loss of feed is tremendous in terms of value.


Potential impact of wind speed on feed losses based on the assumption that there are no feed particle losses at wind speeds of 5 mph or less

Wind speed (mph)

Potential increases in relative feed losses


No losses









Source: Harner et al., 2011.


Renovation project

Dairy industry leaders and leadership at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF) have kicked off fund-raising efforts to make needed updates to the university's Dairy Pilot Plant.

UWRF is one of just a few campuses in the nation that can deliver a 360-degree experiential learning opportunity for undergraduate students to work in a dairy plant production environment and participate in new product development — from testing to marketing and from production to final retail — in addition to being able to access the key academic components in the classroom.

"Wisconsin's dairy industry is in the need of cheese makers, butter makers, process operators, quality assurance and food microbiologists," Tayt Wuethrich, vice president/owner of Grassland Dairy Products Inc., said as he expressed support for the renovation of UWRF's Dairy Pilot Plant. "UW-River Falls competes with many other schools of higher learning from across the U.S., so upgrading the pilot plant sends a statement that we are here to retain and train our next generation of dairy leaders in Wisconsin."

Launched in June 2013, the fund-raising effort has already reached $1 million in gifts and commitments — one-third of its goal to raise $3 million in private contributions to update and upgrade equipment in the Dairy Pilot Plant. UWRF will also seek to secure an additional $500,000 in institutional and state funding for facility renovation and modernization.

Modernization efforts will ensure that the campus's 30-year-old Dairy Pilot Plant will continue to be considered relevant to the region's growing dairy processing industry and will help meet demands for talented, production floor-ready graduates, UWRF said.

The renovation is scheduled to start in the summer of 2015, with much of the work completed in time for the start of the fall semester. Full occupancy of the new space is anticipated by January 2016. The renovation fund-raising effort is part of UWRF's larger, $20 million Rising to Distinction comprehensive campaign, which has raised more than $14 million to date.

"This renovation project will ensure the university's relevancy in the dairy industry with regards to education and training while introducing state-of-the-art processing, food safety and biosecurity features," Dairy Pilot Plant manager Michelle Farner said.


Scientific decision-making

Victor Cabrera isn't an expert in cattle genomics or reproduction; he hasn't spent a day in a lab running tests on the nutritional content of feed. Instead, Cabrera, associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy science department, spends most of his time in front of a screen building economic modeling programs for dairy producers.

"I do a lot of my research on a computer making simulations, where I try to put a dollar value on reproductive programs or nutrition protocols or the adoption of new advancements and see if it makes (financial) sense or not," Cabrera explained.

The result is a suite of online programs Cabrera offers for free on his extension website at These "decision support tools" evaluate the costs and potential benefits of just about any change a farmer might be considering.

The site offers more than 50 such tools, with titles like "Grouping Strategies for Feeding Lactating Dairy Cattle" or "Exploring Timing of Pregnancy Impact on Income Over Feed Cost."

"When we recruited Victor, we really wanted someone who could work with virtually everyone in the department to bring a science-based economic structure into the dairy farm decision process," said Pamela Ruegg, dairy science professor and extension milk quality specialist at Madison. She said that's exactly what he has done, putting the university's research into the day-to-day operations of a dairy.

Cabrera said it hasn't always been easy, because changing the way things are done on a farm is a major undertaking. Farmers are apprehensive about change if what they're doing is working and if they're not confident that the new suggestion will improve profits and efficiency.

"Situations on the farm change constantly, and that means the 'right' decisions aren't always the same," Cabrera explained. "My programs allow farmers to define their own conditions with their own data, making sure the resulting decision will fit their specific system."

In 2013, Cabrera's simulations and models helped 1,300 different users each month, and that number is growing. That's great for the dairy science department as well as the farmer, department chair Kent Weigel said, because it helps funnel new knowledge directly from the lab to the farm.

Volume:86 Issue:10

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