Rumenation Solutions

In 2015 Ghost Hollow Consulting celebrated 20 years in business. During that time along with 18 years of dairy herd management, I have witnessed many advances in dairy nutrition. In the 70’s, TMR mixers allowed for a more uniform diet. In the mid 80’s, the value of bypass protein and bypass fats were recognized. In the mid 90’s, the Cornell Net Carbohydrate System (Cornell Model) was released, allowing nutritionists to “model” rations. During the early 2000’s, bypass amino acids became more available for amino acid balancing. Recently lab analysis for starch and NDF digestibility have given nutritionists more tools to maximize TMR performance. All of these technologies have allowed us to take a step up in performance.

What will be the next step? A technology that has been around a while, but has mainly been used in university research settings is the In Vitro Rumen Fermentation System. With this system TMR’s or individual ingredients can be quickly analyzed for performance measures that can greatly affect milk production. Using this system, we can quickly evaluate the addition of an ingredient or additive and accurately predict the performance change or lack thereof in the herd. With this system, we can predict the change in performance of feed additives, ingredient changes, new silages, and many other changes that even the most sophisticated modeling software cannot handle.

Modeling software is a great tool. I have used the Cornell Model since its inception in 1994, but models are totally dependent on inputs and all situations cannot be modeled. Feed additives such as yeast, enzymes and essential oils have no inputs in any model to help evaluate the outcome. Model equations are developed from research trials, but there is not enough research time or money to evaluate every scenario. There are many feed combinations that are synergistic and add value beyond what a model would predict just from the feed analysis. In addition, there are some combinations that are detrimental to performance.

This is where our In Vitro system, Rumenation, at GHC Labs can be used to get your herd’s performance to the next level. Using this system, we can evaluate your TMR against high performing TMR’s, troubleshooting the shortcomings and giving advice to increase performance. We can add a specific additive to your TMR to accurately predict the change that additive will have in your herd’s performance and have the results back to you in 48 hours. This saves you time and money in trying to evaluate changes.

We have successfully used Rumenation to evaluate the best additive to give maximum performance for a specific TMR. In one instance, we attempted to evaluate different additives on a current TMR. Using our large library of feed additives, which numbers over 30 different additives and is growing, we sorted out the best two additives for this specific TMR. One cost 7 cents per day and one cost 2.5 cents. We went with the cheaper product and have seen 3-4 lbs. of milk increase.

In another instance, we evaluated a source of alfalfa hay that seemed to be feeding better than the lab test would predict. After running this hay and several other hays of similar RFV value through Rumenation, we determined that this hay produced an extremely high amount of microbial protein compared to the other hays. We were able to remove bypass protein, feed more hay and keep milk production the same, all while lowering cost and increasing components.

This is a five step process. We run five different samples to get our results. We insert an unground TMR into our cannulated cow to evaluate digestion and corn processing. The 2nd sample is run for 24 hours to evaluate gas production. Total gas produced and the ratio of CO2 to methane is evaluated. Another sample is run and then tested for starch, protein, fat, NDF, ADF and ash to evaluate digestion. One sample is evaluated at 5 hours for volatile fatty acids to check for proper digestion. The last sample is pulled at 5 hours to evaluate starch degradability. We will, in the near future be able to evaluate amino acids as well.

Rumenation is going to allow us to continue to use our current models to build good TMR’s and then take them to the next level. We have received great interest, and products to evaluate, from many different feed additive companies. The uses for this system are endless. We have put a lot of time and research into making a system that is not only accurate, but gets results back to the dairyman in a very timely manner. Please call so we can discuss how Rumenation can benefit you.


Herd 1 was producing:
•88 lbs. of Milk
•3.2% Fat
•Forage was at 49% of DM
•NDF was 36%
•Starch was 23%

Because of the fiber levels, this was not a herd you would expect to be that low. We ran their TMR and all of their forages through the RUMENATION SYSTEM. We found that their forages and starches were more digestible than the ration predicted. Analyzing the 5 hour VFA profile, we saw propionic acid was at 26% and acetic acid was at 53% with an A/P ratio of .76. Herds with more normal fat run around 22% prop and 56% acetic with a ratio of 1.3. When we add Rumensin to a diet it raises propionic acid and lowers acetic, which generally increases milk, but lowers fat test. We added 2 lbs. of soy hulls, lowered corn 2 lbs. and switched from flaked corn to fine ground corn. Fat test responded to 3.6% and milk actually increased a pound.

Herd 2 was under producing:
•70 lbs. of Milk
•3.4% Fat
•All forages showed good digestibility when
evaluated through Rumenation
•The evaluation of the TMR indicated very low NDF digestibility, which was counter to what we had seen when we ran the forages separately.

We decided to “build” some TMR’s in the lab with this dairies’ ingredients. We left out one ingredient for each run to try to find the guilty party. It turned out that the extruded soy they were using had a high fat level that was rumen available. This along with some wet DDG was adding too much rumen available fat to the rumen and negatively affecting NDF digestion. A higher quality by-pass soy was added and milk responded up 5 lbs. and fat test increased 3 points. Both of these results were completed in less than a week in the lab. Nothing was changed on the dairy until the lab results correctly identified the problem. After the problems were identified, the solutions were easy to implement.



Raise Your Expectations: Key Performance Indicators

There are so many numbers thrown around in the dairy industry that are used to evaluate the performance of the herd. Of course, milk production is the most widely used indicator. It is easily available every day and is critical to the profitability of the dairy. However, it is my opinion that milk in the tank is the culmination of a large number of other indicators that are much more difficult to measure.

During times of tight margins and low profitability, keeping track of the numbers that affect the bottom line is critical to overall profitability. There are five key areas to evaluate continuously in order to ensure that performance is maximized. Transition, reproduction, udder health, culls, and other health should be evaluated on a weekly basis.

While all of these parameters play a key part in overall herd performance, transition sets the stage for the whole lactation. When a cow transitions poorly, it is very unlikely she will perform up to par with her herd mates and is likely to be culled before she completes the lactation. This is also the part of the lactation where nutrition plays an extremely large role. A the cow changes from the dry ration to the close-up ration to the fresh ration to the lactating ration, the nutritional balance of the ration is critical to smooth transitions to each ration. Once a cow is effortlessly transitioned to the high or lactating ration, the rest of the lactation is relativelysimple.

So, how do we evaluate transition numbers to prove the effectiveness of our transition program. Going through the calving process in order of events, milk fever should easily be less than 1% with the technology we have today. Retained placenta should be less than 7%. Metris’s should be less than 8%. Displaced abomasum, which is usually secondary to another metabolic issue, should be under 1.5%. Ketosis should not be over 4% and mastitis at freshening should be less than 2%. All of these numbers are attainable and are being achieved by herds around thecountry.

One more critical component of transition evaluation is early culls. On some dairies metabolic problems aren’t reported, but are seen as early culls. Cows culled less than 30 days in milk should be under 2% of those calved. 60 day culls should average under 3%. If the metabolic issues are kept below the numbers above, these cull rates can be achieved. This saves more of your most profitable cows and allows culling of later lactation or poor performing herdmates.

Great transition builds a foundation for great reproduction. Repro numbers are more familiar to owners and managers than transition numbers. Great strides have been made in reproductive efficiency. Great repro leads to low days in milk, lower culling rate and higher milk production. There are numerous herds achieving 30+ preg rates and 50% conception rates. Many of the best are achieving this with a traditional chalk and heat detection protocol. These should be the goals for all dairies.
Udder health is another key parameter to monitor. It can be monitored daily. SCC’s of around 100,000 or less are the most profitable and are very achievable. As the herd SCC count moves up to 150 or 200,000 2-3 lbs of milk are lost. SCC can be like a “silent killer”. With counts in the high 100’s or over 200, mastitis might not seem to be an issue, but milk production suffers. Increasing SCC’s is a sign the immune system is kicking in to fight off bacteria. The immune system may in fact be successful in keeping clinical mastitis under control, but at an enormous cost energy wise. The loss in milk is real. Clinical mastitis cases should be kept at less than 2% of the herd permonth.

We have talked about early culls and culling due to poor repro. Mastitis is also a big reason for culls. In most herds about 10% of the herd is culled annually for repro and 10% for mastitis. With great transition, great repro and great udder health cull rate can be lowered below 30% and in many cases as low as 25%. The implications on the bottom line are enormous. More heifers to sell or more culling of animals that are not performing.

Other health issues are the final piece to be monitored on a weekly basis. Lameness should be under 2% of the herd. Digestive and off feed cows should be under 3% of the herd per month. Pneumonia can be kept under 1%.

By designing a reporting system that is weekly and shows trends over time (see attached pdf’s) changes can be made in management practices and nutrition to keep performance at it’s highest level. I can’t close without revealing the influence conquering all these numbers has on milk production. There are herds achieving all of these goals in this article. If that can be accomplished 90 lbs. of energy corrected milk is not only possible but is being achieved. These are non BSTherds.
The really cool part of this, is that these results can be achieved with almost no expenditure of money. In fact, in most cases the vet and medicine costs will be greatly lowered. It is just a matter of adjusting and tweaking some management and nutrition.

If you would like help setting up these monitors, please contact me at

Ghost Hollow Consulting Celebrating 20th Anniversary


Ghost Hollow Consulting is celebrating our 20th Anniversary this year!

We would like to thank dairymen everywhere for allowing us to be a part of this exciting and vital industry. We look forward to bringing more cutting edge nutrition and management consulting to the dairy industry for the next 20 years!

Raise Your Expectations: Defining the Problem

The absolute hardest part of solving a problem is figuring out what the actual problem is in the first place. Transition is poor, is it the ration, the feeder, not enough days in the close-up pen, overcrowding or something else? Each of these answers requires a totally different solution. Poor udder health, is it the milking procedure, the milkers themselves, equipment, or environment? Again each situation requires lots of attention and all requiring a different solution.

For this exercise I would like to look at improving forage quality. There are very few dairies that don’t have any room to improve in this area. Since corn silage is generally the forage that occupies the most space in many rations, let’s troubleshoot improving the quality of corn silage. By improving quality we are talking about better NDF digestibility, better starch digestibility and higher levels of starch. In almost all cases improving quality will also improve yield. There are five key times that management can influence quality, hybrid selection, planting, 4 to 5 leaf stage (V4), grain filling, and harvest.

Growing a healthy crop of corn has many similarities to raising replacements and getting them into the milking herd successfully. The first step is picking the genetics for your next crop. There are huge differences in corn genetics pertaining to digestibility of NDF and starch. Every dairy, or better yet groups of dairies, should evaluate varieties for not only yield, but also quality. By comparing varieties as they come to the pit, you can identify the ones you want to plant next year. There are varieties that are better designed for silage than others.

Step two is at planting. There are two keys to getting the corn plant up and running. Maximize the use of soil microbes and use a good starter fertilizer. The soil and the rumen of a cow both are completely dependent on the microbes (bugs) that live in them. Tons of manure, while necessary for environmental compliance, is not necessarily the best for maintaining optimum bug population. The salts applied with the manure are detrimental to optimum microbial activity. There are additives that can be added to the soil to help alleviate this problem and maximize the benefits of soil microbes.

Using a good starter fertilizer is similar to feeding a calf colostrum. If you get the corn (or calf) off to a great start, the rest is much easier. A good starter fertilizer does two things, supplies the seedling micronutrients it need to grow in a harsh environment and stimulates the microbial population to provide nutrients to the plant. Starters containing molasses feed the microbes and help get the seedling off and running.

Step three is at the 4-5-leaf stage or V4. At this time tissue samples should be analyzed to asses nutrient needs. Nitrogen and micronutrient supplementation can be recommended and applies. This is also a good time to apply a fungicide. A fungicide at this stage of growth is similar to vaccinating heifers. There may not be problems occurring, but this sets up the corn plant to be healthier as it heads into maybe the most important part of its life.

Step four is during grain filling. The most critical aspects during this time are plenty of water and plenty of nitrogen.

Step five is harvest. Unfortunately this step can and often does, wipe out many of the good practices performed in the other four steps. Timing fields so they are chopped at 35-40% dry matter, proper kernel processing, and an inoculant that will not only provide the best fermentation, but also add to the digestibility with enzymes. We want to harvest so that we maximize our starch yield and provide the correct moisture for optimum fermentation. This is around 35-40% dry matter. Hopefully no one needs to be reminded about the importance of kernel processing. The inoculant should provide bugs to aid in fermentation, but also enzymes to maximize digestibility. Enzyme technology will become an extremely important part of how we feed cows in the future. Right now we know enough to be able to increase starch and NDF digestibility in silage.

By looking through these five steps, maybe you can find missing pieces to your forage quality puzzle. If you have any questions on any of these technologies, please contact us; we have the experts to answer all of your questions!

Raise Your Expectations

In many areas of life we reach plateaus. Whether it’s weight loss, fitness, our spiritual life, our career, our hobbies or many other aspects of our life. We get stuck and feel this may be the best we can do. Dairies definitely aren’t immune to this phenomenon. Whether it is milk production, reproduction, transition, forage quality, udder health or a myriad of other facets related to the management and productivity of a dairy. As in the parts of our daily lives in which we plateau, we need a system to help us “Get to the Next Level.”

In how many aspects of your operation do you look back and realize we have been at this level of performance for a long time. Unfortunately, rising costs for inputs and always-dwindling margins require every business to continue to improve in all phases of management and performance. The saying, “The thinking (or action) that got you here, won’t get you there” applies equal to dairies as it does to any other business. One of my favorite quotes is from Einstein, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” We have to change our thinking and actions to get to that next level. The most important thing we have to do is, raise our expectations.

The process of busting through ceilings or plateaus is fairly straightforward. There are five steps to the process: defining the problem, searching for solutions, picking a solution, implementing the solution and reviewing the results.

Before we can begin defining the problem we have to find the places where we have plateaued. What parts of your operation have become stagnant? Have you been at the same milk production levels for a few years? Is your repro program improving every year? Find the areas where you need to set new goals. When you reach a new goal, celebrate, and then set a new goal!

Over the next five weeks we will go in depth into each of the five steps to help break through your plateaus. Who knows it might work so well, you will use it to lose that extra 15-pound you’ve been trying to lose!

Increasing Starch Digestibility

There has been a lot written and discussed about increasing the digestibility of starch in dairy diets, and for good reason. Starch comprises, on the average 25% of most dairy rations. Increasing the amount of starch digested in the rumen and available to produce microbial protein can bring big dividends to the bottom line.

Because of corn being grown for livestock feed is such a small percentage of the total crop, and corn grown for ethanol production has increased dramatically, the genetics of the plant have changed. This change to enhance ethanol production has resulted in corn grain that is lower is digestibility. Therefore everything we can do to enhance digestibility has that much of a greater impact.

When I speak about increasing digestibility, I am referring to digestibility in the rumen. Even our less digestible corn is digested over 95% by the time it passes through the digestive tract. Cows can still get energy from corn in the intestine, but our goal is to produce as much microbial protein in the rumen and for this we need digestible starch. Too much starch digesting or fermenting in the intestine can cause health problems.

There are three main ways to ensure we increase starch digestion in the rumen. We must pick the right genetics. Make sure the corn in both grain and silage is processed correctly. We also must add additives that help with starch digestion, such as enzymes.

As mentioned before, genetics can play a big role in starch digestion. Unfortunately, especially for corn grain, most dairies don’t have an option as to the varieties grown. For those that do there are still companies producing some older genetics that would be worth checking into. Silage is a different matter. Searching for varieties with starch digestibility numbers is a very worthwhile project. All feed labs now have the ability to test for digestible starch. Using these numbers to rank your current varieties and pick the best ones for next year can help.

The area where we can have the most immediate impact is the processing side of the equation. I think most dairies realize the importance of kernel processing in silage. But I find far less that scrutinize their corn grain as much. Currently most dairies use either steam flaked or ground corn. Let’s start with flaked corn; the digestibility of the flake is directly correlated to the flake weight. The lighter the weight the more digestible the flake. Unfortunately, a lot of mills don’t make the kind of flakes we need because of time constraints. In order to increase throughput, the flakes don’t stay in the steam cabinet long enough and therefore can’t be flattened enough to make high quality flakes. It is very easy to test flake weight on the farm. Using a very inexpensive bushel weight tester (Nasco carries them), you can determine flake weights in about a minute. Anything at or under 28 lbs. per bushel is a good flake. Above that and they become steam rolled, not flaked. The higher the number, the lower the digestibility.

Ground corn digestibility is determined by particle, or micron size. The smaller the particle the more surface area there is for the rumen bacteria to attack and digest. Going from 600 microns to 400 microns will yield about 2 lbs. of milk. The lower the micron size the longer it takes to process, so mills again are constrained by time. But we have had good luck either working with the mills to lower particle size or finding a new mill to work with.

Enzymes have a bright future in dairy feeds to increase both starch and fiber digestion. Unfortunately right now it has been hit and miss as to which enzymes work and when. There is a lot of work being done by a few companies to try to identify which enzymes work best in each situation. Shotgun feeding of enzyme cocktails is a very hit and miss proposition. But enzymes show extreme promise for taking dairy nutrition to the next level.

Bottom line is starch digestibility has a huge impact on cow performance and efficiency, and therefore profitability. There are steps that can be taken to maximize starch digestibility in your herd.

Digestibility: The Key to Unlocking Forage Quality

Since a dairy cow’s diet consists of from 40-60 % forage, the quality of that forage has an enormous impact on the performance and profitability of the dairy. What exactly determines the quality of forage? Forage quality is determined by the nutrient content and the digestibility of those nutrients. Protein, NDF, fat, sugar and starch are the nutrients to be most concerned with.

There have been many articles written and speeches given about how harvest timing affects forage quality. Earlier harvest for alfalfa and small grains lowers fiber and increases protein, fiber digestibility, and energy. Corn is a little different in that harvest is timed to capture the best combination of starch content and fiber digestibility.

Most everyone knows that forages lower in NDF are considered higher quality. Because fat, fiber, carbohydrates, ash and protein must add up to 100%, lowering fiber (NDF) increases carbohydrates or protein or both, which increases the energy or protein of the forage. But what a lot of people fail to realize, is that increasing the digestibility of that forage can add the same or more energy along with keeping the benefits associated with fiber. Increasing 24 hour NDF digestibility from 48% to 55% in a ration with 55 lbs of corn silage allows for a 3 lb milk increase with no other changes. The last 2 months of corn silage samples run through GHC Labs in Idaho show a range of from 35-75% in 24 hour NDF digestibility.

The question is how can NDF digestibility be increased? There are several ways to accomplish this. Variety selection can have a big impact on digestibility. There are agronomic practices that will positively affect digestibility. Harvest techniques and silage inoculants can also be used to improve digestibility.

Variety selection is the first option to be used to maximize digestibility. There are huge differences in the NDF digestibility of different varieties. There is more information on corn varieties than on alfalfa or small grains, but there is some information available. In addition to NDF digestibility, starch digestibility in corn silage is extremely important. Starch digestibility ranges from below 50% to over 80% for 7 hour starch digestibility. Choosing the varieties that will be the most digestible is the place to start.

There is not a lot of information on agronomic practices that can improve digestibility. But this is an area with a lot of potential for progress. The concept is not that different from getting high production and performance from a dairy herd. Anything that will improve plant health will help digestibility. Stressed plants allow disease and molds to develop, which can lead to toxins in the forage. There are soil additives that help the plant take up more nutrients essential for growth that have shown a lot of promise. Fungicide treatments at the 4-5 leaf stage in corn have been proven to improve plant health and therefore digestibility. Fungicides on alfalfa have also shown improved leaf retention and therefore better quality. The fertility program, timing of application and the correct rates, definitely affects plant health and productivity.

Harvest techniques and inoculants have been shown to play huge roles in the final digestibility of forages. Corn Silage kernel processing can greatly impact the performance of a dairy herd. Corn silage processing scores are a valuable tool to evaluate the processing of the kernels at harvest. Going from a score of less than 50 to over 70 can have an impact of 4-5 lbs of milk on a high corn silage diet. A big issue with alfalfa hay, haylage and small grain silage is added dirt. As much as 10% added dirt or ash can accumulate with poor harvesting techniques, lowering the feeding value significantly.

Inoculants can help digestibility. Our enzyme technology is improving all the time. Enzymes have been added to inoculants to break down the cell walls to provide added nutrients for the bacteria during fermentation. An added benefit has been increased NDF digestibility. There are inoculants available that have shown the ability to increase NDF digestibility as much as 10-15%. It also looks like they will increase starch digestibility.

This information is all great as we plan for the upcoming crop year. But what can be done for forages that are being fed now, that might not be as digestible as they need to be? Unfortunately there are not too many options for improving forage already harvested. As mentioned earlier, enzyme technology shows a lot of promise. But it is also very hit and miss. There are some labs around with fermentation systems that could be used to test different enzymes or enzyme cocktails on your forages. This is a good place to start and much less expensive than feeding a product to the whole herd.

Another option is to create your own digestible forage. A mixture of 50% ground corn and 50% soy hulls makes a corn silage replacement with 38% NDF and 37% starch. This is very close nutrient wise to a good corn silage. The difference is the amount of NDF that is fermented in the rumen is increased from 36% to over 50%. This would allow for an additional pound of milk for every pound of dry matter replaced. If the diet contains enough effective fiber already, this is a very viable solution.

Starch and NDF make up over 50% of most lactating diets. A change in digestibility one way or the other can significantly affect performance and profitability. While not associated with forge quality, it is important to mention that processing of corn grain is of equal importance. Whether the dairy feeds ground corn, high moisture corn, or flaked corn, the processing can affect performance greatly. Not enough attention is devoted to evaluating fineness of grind or the flake weight of corn grain. Evaluating starch in the manure is a good place to start. Anything over 5% indicates too much starch escaping digestion.

With the current economic ratios in the dairy industry, high feed cost along with high milk prices, the digestibility of the nutrients fed can have an enormous impact on the bottom line. The tools to evaluate feeds and rations are fairly cheap and simple to use. Maximizing feed digestibility may have the single most impact on profitability.

The Art of Transition

Transitioning dairy cattle from dry cows to healthy high producing lactating cows is the single most difficult endeavor undertaken on today’s dairy farms. Many studies on the incidence of metabolic problems in early lactation indicate that on average 20 % of early lactation cows have had one or more metabolic diseases. Factor in sub-clinical ketosis and milk fever, which are hard to detect and report and that number could reach one third of freshening’s. These health problems lead to culling almost 10 % of early lactation cattle before they reach 30 days in milk.

The cost of even average transition is enormous. Losing 10 % of the herd that has the most potential to create profit for the dairy is a huge drain on profits and productivity. Some costs are obvious. Medicine, labor, and vet costs incurred trying to save sick animals are pretty straight forward. Some are not as easy to put a number on. How much is lost on cows sold when they are thin, as opposed to their plump late lactation counterparts? What about the loss on dead cows? The hardest loss to put a number on is loss of productivity. The cows that don’t peak where they should, don’t breed like they should, or are culled in mid lactation for “low production” that was caused by poor transition. Add on top of that the loss in milk from cows that can’t be culled because there aren’t enough early lactation cows to replace them and even average transition can lower profits $1.50 -2.00 per cwt.

Over the last 15 years, there has been an enormous amount of transition research published. There have been numerous products developed to aid in improving transition. Most people in the industry realize the importance of improving transition. This has led to improvement in tools to transition cows better. There are herds that are achieving a metabolic disease rate of less than 10% of freshening’s and 30 day cull rate less than 2%. What are they doing to achieve these numbers?

First, what is the transition period? Transition is 30 days before to 30 days after calving. The early dry period is not included. Cows in the early dry period, from dry off to 30 days before calving have much more flexible requirements than the close-up cows. The ideal dry period is 45-60 days. Loss in performance is seen in dry periods that are too short, less than 40 days, or too long, more than 70 days. Optimum days on the close-up ration are greater than 25 days for cows and greater than 28 days for first lactation heifers.
What is the ideal close-up ration? There have been many research papers published evaluating rations to improve transition. These trials showed a few different ways to build better transition rations. The problem with research is that they are not able to look at long term studies or use large numbers of cattle. The ideal close-up ration needs to encourage high intakes, reduce metabolic problems, maximize milk production after calving, minimize weight loss, and dovetail with the post calving ration to maximize reproduction. Sounds easy enough.

The ingredients in the close-up ration should be the same as the fresh cow ration with a few exceptions. The most important thing to remember about ingredients for close-up cows is the quality. As she nears calving, the close-up cow will eat less and need more nutrients, making digestibility of feeds even more important. Good quality grass hay that is low in potassium is the cornerstone to creating the perfect close-up ration. Low potassium oat hay is a wonderful close-up ingredient. Straw will work, but performance is better on grass or small grain hays. Low potassium alfalfa hay is a good addition, along with corn silage. Be careful with haylage or small grain silage because of potassium and soluble protein.

As for other ingredients, most of the commodities included in the fresh ration can be used. Be careful with soluble protein and by-products which are high in phosphorus. Good by-pass soy works great for the protein source. Corn should be the main energy source. Keep fat to a minimum, especially vegetable fat from by-products.

The mineral content of the close-up diet is critical to achieving the best transition. Both cows and first lactation heifers respond positively to a diet with a low DCAD. Again, highest quality ingredients should be used. Magnesium sulfate is a great source of magnesium that is highly available to the cow. There are a few DCAD products available commercially. Use the ones low in soluble protein. Trace minerals should be organic, especially selenium. High levels of vitamin E will help minimize retained placentas and metritis.

Moving on to the fresh cow diet, the question is often asked, is there a need for a separate fresh diet? Part of the answer is “How long will they be on the fresh cow diet?” Cows on a fresh diet less than 20 days will benefit from a “step up program”. Increasing energy about 10% from the close-up diet and lowering fiber. Then putting them on the lactating ration at 14-20 days. Cows on the fresh diet longer than 20 days run the risk of losing too much weight on a lower energy diet.

A perfect close-up ration is one of the keys to top-notch transition but by far not the only key. A huge part of the transition is the “Art of Transition” provided by the management team. Getting cows to the close-up pens at the right time, monitoring the pen density, finding cows that need attention or treatment and providing the right treatment. The management of the close-ups is of equal or more importance than the ration. The transition program can’t flourish if either area is neglected.

Pen density is a big key. Overcrowding both before and after freshening hurts performance. Cows during transition don’t handle overcrowding like they can in later lactation. Most close-up pens are undersized. In order to keep cows on the close-up ration for the optimum time many dairies are feeding the close-up ration to more than one pen. Cows are moved to the regular close-up pen as room allows. This keeps density down, but allows cows to be on the close-up ration longer.

The herdsmen in charge of the transition program are very important to the success. Good cow men or women are essential. The ability to find cows that need attention quickly and provide the right treatment is key. Many fresh cows are handled and treated too much. Less is better. If the ration, facilities and cow handling are precise a vast majority of the fresh cows will fly through transition needing no treatment at all.

What makes transition so hard is the willingness of today’s cows to milk. Even when they are not feeling perfect and not eating well, their genes are screaming for more milk. This can cause a cascade of events and eventually she will basically milk herself to death. With today’s technology and knowledge the transition events can not only be managed, but managed in such a way that profitability is greatly increased. Transition is very complicated and has many moving parts. The dairymen with great transition pay attention to every little detail and make the changes necessary to allow the cows to fly through transition.

Reproduction: One of the Key Elements to Profitability

Everyone in the dairy industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief. The drought induced feed prices are ending and new crop corn and beans are flowing to the dairies, at substantially lower prices. That being said, feed costs will still be double what it was just a few years ago, while milk price is only up about 30%. Margins will continue to be tight and management must find every opportunity to maximize performance in order to increase margins and profits. One of the key elements to profitability on the dairy is reproduction.

Outstanding reproduction will maximize milk per cow by lowering days in milk and keep a higher percentage of the herd at peak. Also impacted will be culling, lowering reproductive culls and allowing opportunity for heifer and dairy sales. More calve will be available for sales or improving the quality of the herd, or both. Feed efficiency will improve due to higher milk production and less stale cows in the herd. All in all, depending on the current reproductive numbers of the herd, there can be $1-$2/cwt added to the bottom line by taking the reproductive program to elite status.

There are five main fundamentals that determine the quality of the reproductive program, transition, nutrition, cow comfort, heat detection, and insemination. All are of equal importance.

Transition is the key to many facets of herd performance. An elite transition program maximizes production, reproduction, and feed efficiency, while minimizing body condition loss, and early culls. Transition starts in the last month of the dry period, on most likely the most important ration on the dairy. The closeup ration and the number of days cows are on this ration are critical to a smooth transition. A flawless transition program vaults cattle into production by keeping intakes as high as possible both pre and post calving. High intakes insure low incidences of ketosis associated with rapid weight loss. Excess weight loss (all cows lose some weight in the first 20 days of lactation) is directly correlated with low reproductive performance. By maximizing intakes in early lactation, cows should begin to get to positive energy balance by 20 days in milk.

The three most important keys to a great transition are a properly balanced closeup ration, Number of days on that ration, and the cow density in the closeup pen. Cows should be on the closeup ration at least 21 days and first calf heifers 28 days. Research has shown no ill effects of leaving cattle on the closeup ration for more than 30 days. Research has also shown the importance of “under crowding” in the closeup pen. The best overall performance is achieved when density is at 100% or less for the pen. This is the area most often neglected on most dairies. Most transition pens and facilities were designed for less cows than are now flowing through them.

The dairy nutritionist has a key role in the performance of the reproductive program. Starting with the closeup ration and continuing to the lactating rations leading up to breeding. Getting the cow to calve in with no metabolic problems, go on to a lactating ration with no digestive issues, and increase intake fast enough to minimize body condition loss, is quite a complicated balancing act. Making all of these transitions smoothly is critical to elite performance.

While the main nutritional emphasis should be on a properly balanced ration, there are a few ingredients available to enhance reproduction. Vitamin E and selenium in combination have shown to help reproductive performance. Organic selenium or selenium yeast has been a major improvement over the inorganic. Organic copper, zinc and manganese also have shown positive results for reproduction.

Omega 3’s, very popular in human nutrition, have shown excellent results in dairy cattle reproduction. Omega 3’s help with pregnancy retention and lower early embryonic death. Fish meal was probably the first product to deliver Omega 3’s to dairy rations. After fish meal became too expensive for dairy rations, flaxseed and fish oil protected in by-pass fats have become options for nutritionists and producers. A relatively new, but promising development in Omega 3’s is algae. There are now high Omega 3 algae available to give one more option.

Keeping with the theme of high intakes to minimize condition loss and maximize milk production, is cow comfort. Cow comfort would probably not be at the top of most lists of critical elements of elite reproductive programs. However in order for a highly productive dairy cow to operate at maximum efficiency, she needs to lay down 12-15 hours per day. Providing a comfortable surface for her to lay and chew her cud is vital to top performance. Remember, elite performance is caused by lack of stress, not a cause of stress. Uncomfortable resting areas cause cows to stand more, which takes away nutrients from production and reproduction. Excess standing also contributes to hoof problems, which can affect heat detection.

The human element comes in to play in this next vital step to improving reproductive performance. Heat detection is the most common hole in a lot of breeding programs. There have been numerous programs developed to aid or eliminate heat detection. There are plenty of Ovsynch protocols to choose from. The question is which heat detection method will bring the most return for the dollars spent? All of these have a cost, with some being much more expensive than others.

Some of the most successful reproductive programs have very simple and cost effective programs in place to improve heat detection. Prostaglandin once per week, with diligent heat detection is used on one herd that averages around 30% preg rate. That is a very high return on investment. Don’t forget the highest quality follicles are formed during the dry period. Programs which try to utilize these early follicles will be the most efficient. Waiting to begin breeding until 70 days completely wastes the opportunity to use these high quality follicles.

Employee training is a critical key to improving both heat detection and insemination efficiency. Outside breeding services usually provide their technicians with constant training. Dairies with on farm breeders need to do the same. Training and retaining employees is and will continue to be vitally important to maximize the performance in all areas of the dairy.

One relatively new development that could possibly help in reproduction is early pregnancy diagnosis. Detecting open cows at 25-30 days, and getting them back in the breeding herd can improve preg rate significantly. Ultrasound has been used successfully for a while. Milk and blood pregnancy tests are available now and getting more use. These are possibly more tools to improve your reproductive performance.

Most readers will probably notice that a lot of time was spent on herdsman ship items and very little time on breeding protocols and the actual breeding. That is because it is impossible to have outstanding reproductive performance if the events leading up to breeding are subpar. That would be like ignoring good crop production practices and expecting the inoculant to manufacture top quality silage. The transition, cow comfort and nutrition make or break the repro program.

Elite reproductive status is key to maximizing the potential of the herd. Like most key factors in dairy production there are many fundamentals that are involved in the performance or lack thereof of the reproductive program. Failure in one area will result in less than expected performance. All of the key factors have to be accounted for to excel.

Applying What We Learned from Last Years’ Drought to this Year

The drought in the southwest in 2011 gave rise to some unique feeding situations. With forage production reduced to 20-30 % of normal, many new feeds and feeding strategies came into play.
Let’s discuss what we learned first. We learned that the dairy cow can make a lot of milk with a variety of ingredients and ingredient combinations. In other words, we can be extremely flexible in what we feed. The second thing we learned, was that drought makes forage much more digestible, especially NDF. So even though starch levels were reduced in corn silage, energy values were good, because the fiber was extremely digestible. The other thing we learned was that we can replace forage fiber with by-product fiber and do very well. Rations that used the NDF from commodities were extremely successful. Forage levels under 30% worked, as long as the NDF levels were in the 28-32% range.

Looking at low forage diets, one thing to remember is that forage is not forage. When we replaced corn silage with corn stalks and flaked corn, we lowered the forage content of the ration, but not necessarily the fiber content. Normal corn silage contains about 35% grain. So when we feed diets with corn silage the actual forage content is lower. A 40 % forage diet with 25 lbs of corn silage, actually contains only 35% forage.

We also fed some different ingredients that performed quite well. Ground corn stalks, wheat straw, wheat hay, citrus pulp, glycerin, and wheat mids were some of the ingredients that performed extremely well. This just goes to prove the point of the flexibility we can have in feeding cows.

So how does this knowledge help us this year, when forages are more abundant and grain prices are sky high? The main point to remember is flexibility. We can feed many different combinations of ingredients and have high production. There are still ingredients out there that you might not have considered that are economical right now.

Another thing to look at, is does it make sense to harvest corn as grain, maybe earlage? Then supplement the harvested stalks with purchased sorghum or wheat hay or burrs. We need to keep an open mind and look at all of the possibilities.

Critical to the success of using a feeding program such as this, is the complete analysis of all feed ingredients. The variability of commodities can make a huge difference in the value and feasibility of different feeds. The fantastic modeling software we have available today, make the flexibility we are striving for possible. But we can’t use book values for our nutrients. We must get accurate analysis to plug into these models.

Another critical factor this year, is the processing of starch, which we will discuss in next week’ blog.

Meet Kevin Jones

Kevin is well regarded in the industry as an expert in nutrition and management and possesses a personality that lends well to facilitating positive change and success to the dairymen that he advises.