Managing feed inventories

Carole Curtis
Now Media Group


A feed inventory is vitally important to the success of a dairy operation.

It not only accounts for the feed on hand, it helps project feed needs over the year and has an impact on cropping plans, Dr. Randy Shaver, University of Wisconsin Madison dairy science department, said during the final installment of a three-part World Class Webinar on feed quality being sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

In addition, a feed inventory helps plan storage, clarify the option to sell feed and will help producers determine feed purchase needs to supplement homegrown feedstuffs. 'This is especially important in the Midwest, where we rely so heavily on homegrown and local feeds,' Shaver pointed out.

Feed inventory management is a dynamic process. It takes into account the types of feed grown, the way it is stored and how it is fed out.

'There's a lot to get your arms around when trying to figure out feed inventories,' he said. 'It's an ongoing process, not something you can figure out at any one given time.'

Making it work

Prior to spring planting is a particularly good time to look at feed inventories, Shaver said, and have discussions with the dairy's nutritionist and agronomist about what's in storage and spring harvest projections. That includes cover crops, first crops, winterkill and the impact on plantings.

It is critical, over the next month, to assess first crop harvest. Both quality and quantity in storage impact decisions on late planting activities and fall harvest decisions, Shaver pointed out.

Since corn silage and high moisture corn increase in starch digestibility the longer they are in storage , it's important to plan for three or four months carryover. 'It's a good time now to assess your inventory and see if some adjustments can be made,' he said.

Through the summer, Shaver advised revisiting fall harvest projections, which can be skewed by rainfall and growing degree days. 'This can be very localized,' he observed, noting every year, someone, somewhere is having a crisis.

Issues with weather will impact fall harvest, cover crop planting and buy/sell decisions.

Another big assessment time is after everything is in the barns and silos. 'You need to determine, broadly, the winter feeding program and the needed supplemental feed to balance out the year's harvest,' Shaver said. 'There may be a fiber or energy gap.'

This inventory allows some preplanning of next year's cropping plan. 'I think it's very important to do a late fall feed inventory. You will have a good handle on what's in storage and what carryover will be,' he pointed out.

Feed inventory assessment

A good tool for assessing feed inventories is Dr. Brian Holmes 'Focus on Forage', which features information and calculations for inventory and feeds, and can be found at 'It can be very useful to this whole process,' Shaver said.

The site includes fact sheets, including capacity charts for tower silos and spreadsheets for piles, wedges, pads and bags that enhance accuracy when calculating volumes and densities.

An accurate assessment involves getting accurate numbers on dry matter (DM), as determined by silage samples. Assume DM loss on ensiled feeds and shrink estimates for dry feeds, Shaver said, as well as assumed feed -out and feeding losses, both from spoilage on the face and refusals.

Determine the DM amounts being used by various animal groups, whether heifers, dry cows or high producing cows. DM can be determined by commercial lab analysis or on the farm using a Koster tester, food dehydrated, microwave or on-farm NIRS.

Getting a handle on DM intake and refusals is also vital. 'TMR software programs can get it this, but it needs to be done by pen,' Shaver noted.

TMR management programs, which are important for feeding consistency, can also track how much is being fed each day. 'This is not used as extensively as it could be, but it's a very good tracking system for inventory,' he noted.

Yield versus quality

Dairy producers must also take the trade-off between forage yield and forage quality into account. Yields increase as the crop matures, but the increase is coming from the indigestible side. 'In some situations, you may be looking at older growth, but for lactating cows, there is an optimum; a sweet spot of highest quality and yield,' Shaver said.

Typically, that point falls between 25 and 30 days of growth, depending on the variety of alfalfa and the situation.

'It is very critical to involve your nutritionist and agronomist to discuss yield trade-off and consider hybrids and varieties that give quality and yield,' Shaver emphasized.

The practical forage NDF range in high group TMR is from 24 percent down to 16 percent. The higher figure assumes high quality forage, large forage supplies or forages at favorable prices, while the lower end is dictated by limited forage supplies, the use of high-fiber byproducts and expensive forages.

The nutritional constraints of 24 percent NDF are fill limitations of DMI and reduced milk yield, Shaver noted, while 16 percent can depress milk fat and impair cow health.

Fortunately, not all dairy animals need feeds of the highest quality. Research suggests high producing groups needed greater than 150 relative feed quality (RFQ), while dairy beef and dry cows do better with 100 -110 RFQ.

Dry cows need bulk and lower energy so, more and more, dairies are feeding corn silage blended with wheat straw.

Noting replacement heifers can be significant consumers of nutrients, Shaver said older heifers and bred heifers need 'cutters', such as straw. That provides another place to go with a dairy's lower quality, higher fiber feeds or the dairy can purchase lower quality, less expensive feedstuffs to fill that gap.

'Pay attention to your inventory, relative to your animal needs,' Shaver advised.

Forage losses

Dairy farmers don't always assess forage losses, but they accumulate in a hurry. While losses can be as low as 15 percent with good management, they can soar as high as 60 percent with poor management.

'It is very important to push losses as low as possible and it's especially important in years of lower milk prices,' Shaver said. 'In such a year, something as simple as tightening up pile management can make a big difference.'

Another critical area is reducing feeding losses is feed refusals. Currently, the industry aim is 5 percent or lower, with some dairies successfully managing for 1-3 percent feeding refusals. 'Work with your feeder and nutritionist to get this as low as possible,' he counseled.

Get the experts talking

Connecting the dairy's agronomist and nutritionist is an excellent idea. 'As we start looking at management decisions, we need to do as good a job as possible to get cross talk going among our professionals,' Shaver said.

The items open for discussion include feed inventory and crop rotations, the needs of lactating cows vs dry cows vs replacements, low potassium forages, cover crops, carryover and corn silage vs hay crop silage, as well as nutrient management plans.

Consider harvest and storage issues, silage inoculant selections and use, feed value and testing, nutrient value, reducing variations and the establishment of prices and contracts.

'There are lots of topics to work through in a team meeting. Both parties should play roles in your decision-making process,' Shaver said. 'You need to hear from both sides of the table.'