Farmers across the US are in a state of constant checkbook review to see how much is left at the end of the month, and reacting to mailbox prices is standard behavior. When prices drop or in this case, drop, then remain low, the industry focus shifts to the costs involved rather than performance returns. But like all businesses, a farm needs to maintain outputs and consultants play a vital role in these outputs. Now is the time to remember that each farm business can find opportunities - to maintain or even improve performance while being mindful of costs.
"Things we do now shouldn't be that much different than what we do in times of plenty," explains John Goeser, animal nutrition director for Rock River Laboratory, regarding the farmer and nutritionist decision-making process. With this in mind, Goeser and colleague Dustin Sawyer offer five tips for nutritionists and agronomists, to help their customers spend smarter in 2016:
1) Understand where the farm is relative to where they could be.
"Three benchmarks come to mind when we consider the farm's current position - specifically benchmarking by farm's historical performance, against cohorts or peers, and assessing TMR digestion potential with an analysis tool like TMR-Digestibility (TMRD) or in situ TMR Rumen Starch Digestion. And benchmark feeds with Total Tract NDF Digestibility (TTNDFD)," says Goeser.
He goes on to explain that if fiber or starch digestion is below goal levels, nutrition consultants should consider options to improve carbohydrate digestion performance. If fiber digestion is inferior, Goeser recommends considering strategies such as replacing forage with non-forage fiber sources that are highly digestible, considering more finely ground corn, or even replacing starch or corn sources.But, if starch digestion shows room for improvement, he suggests reducing grain particle size by whatever means possible.
2) Realize feed potential.
Are there opportunities for performance gain relative to feed potential? "Review feeds available on-farm and determine whether feeding more or less forage can gain performance without significant extra costs," says Goeser. Opportunity can also be uncovered by accurately determining purchased feed nutrient composition. At times protein content may be greater than stated - offering greater feed value.
3) Revisit the transition cow program (in dairy herds).
Review transition cow performance starting at the feed center, then looking at the overall transition program," directs Goeser.
Assessing this program includes answering questions such as "Are cows consuming clean, healthy feed?", "how comfortable are the cows?", "how are they handled?", and "how are they being managed through this calving stage?"While many nutritionists and veterinarians already assess this program, Goeser explains that in areas like this it's important to "stick to your core fundamentals."
4) Organize peer groups of clients.
"Sometimes it's our job to encourage producers toward a realistic mindset," explains Goeser. "Organizing a peer group can allow the producer you work with to share and discuss what costs really are across all farms."
He notes the incredible value that comes with looking at the farm as a business with economics. "Reviewing and sharing income over feed costs is one very business-savvy way to assess the state of the farm realistically," says Goeser.
5) Continuously reassess the feed cleanliness.
Goeser recommends considering mold, yeast and clostridia analysis, or vomitoxin analysis on the herd's TMR to justify adding or removing a product that may hinder these anti-nutritional factors, such as binder or digestion aids. A small analysis cost up front could help save high product purchase dollars in the long run.
1) Recognize the value of the feed quality as well as yield
"When you boil it down, dairy farmers and their consultants are only trying to make the most efficient conversion of fertilizer into milk," says Dustin Sawyer, agronomy specialist for Rock River Laboratory. "Crops and cows can really be thought of as small factories that convert those fertilizer dollars into milk dollars."
In this way, Sawyer points out that providing top quality "fuel" in the form of high-quality forage and feedstuffs and taking good care and concern for those small factories can benefit the end performance - adding to your customer's bottom line.
2) Analyze manure to use it best
Book values are prevalent for manure, but are those values really representative of the manure that you or your customers will be spreading? Analyzing manure at each spreading event will ensure that you get all of the fertilizer credit that's due. Be certain to incorporate, or better yet, inject the manure to help mitigate losses of nitrogen credits due to volatilization.
3) Use good proxies to measure conversion of fertilizer into milk
"There is no way to directly measure conversion of fertilizer into milk, so we have to use proxies to review efficiency of this process," explains Sawyer. "A proxy such as plant tissue analysis can be a valuable assessment for fertilizer uptake or nutrient use efficiency. If plant tissue samples are pulled for analysis, an agronomist and grower can monitor how well the crops are converting fertilizer into useful nutrients for their herd," says Sawyer. One mid-season plant tissue analysis is suggested around the V4-V6 growth stages in corn.
4) Consider a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test (PSNT).
"A PSNT helps consultants know exactly what recommendations to give in regards to where growers should spend their nitrogen dollars," explains Sawyer. A PSNT will make sure that the grower is credited for any nitrate that's already in the soil. In years of low prices, keeping inputs to the most efficient volume can save money while maintaining or improving output volume.
5) Gather a Kernel Processing Score (KPS) early into harvest.
A KPS is an easy way to assess the digestible starch that will be available to cattle. If the chopper processor doesn't crack the kernel's prolamin enough, digestible starch is reduced significantly, meaning it simply moves through the cow rather than contributing to the milk production.
"If it's [KPS] done early enough in the harvest, a low score can be improved with a chopper adjustment with time to still improve the bulk of the crop," says Sawyer. "A bucket test can also help to see, visually, if the processor is running correctly."
2016 has already proven to be a challenging year for both producers and consultants, but looking to ways to improve performance and seek out additional values can help overcome these challenges. Now is the time to help dairymen and cattlemen excel in their livelihood by expert attention to detail and review of key management practices. Minimal additional costs are needed to realize improved performance - adding to the bottom line.