Dairy rations over the years evolved well beyond simply dumping feed in a bunk and hoping for productive animals.

A finely-tuned ration improves the health and reproductivity in dairy cows and also maximizes efficiencies and output — all critical factors as farmers deal with tight margins and crop quality issues.

Phil Cardoso, Ph.D., University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences associate professor, and Mike Hutjens, U of I Animal Sciences professor emeritus, discussed the latest dairy feed research and strategies at the Illinois Dairy Summit in Bloomington.

The Illinois Milk Producers Association and U of I Extension hosted the annual event.

“Imagine everything you give her (a dairy cow) is a prescription,” Cardoso said. “If you give a cow what she needs, she’s going to perform.”

Cardoso studied the effects of supplemental rumen-protected amino acids in the diet during the transition period of Holstein cows.

He recommends dry cows receive at least 1,200 grams of metabolizable protein per day. He also recommends a lysine to methionine ratio of 2.8 to 1.

“Talk to your nutritionist and see where you’re at,” he said. “Feeding amino acids is going to get more protein and milk.”

And, based on the research, boosting protein from 3.3% to 3.5% in a 100-cow herd can boost returns by about $65 per day, or $1,971 per month, for a $600 investment.

“There’s not many opportunities out there that have this type of return on investment,” Cardoso said.

This continues a trend of improved efficiency in the dairy industry. In the last 30 years, the U.S. has produced more milk with fewer and more efficient cows that consume 77% less feed per unit of milk produced.

But what about feed quality issues and a lack of high-quality hay on the market due to last year’s challenging growing season?

Hutjens recommends farmers conduct a forage inventory on their farm to cover their feed needs through at least May or June. He also suggests farmers invest in feed tests so they can make more informed decisions with rations.

“Take a forage inventory and, if you’re in a jam, make your decision now to get to May or June,” Hutjens said.

“Corn silage is testing well, but it’s not feeding well (due to possible anti-nutritional factors, such as mold, mycotoxins or wild yeast),” he noted. “And high-quality hay is expensive (and in short supply).”

High-quality alfalfa currently sells for about $235 per ton, $35 above the breakeven level, while low-quality hay is much cheaper at an average of $150 per ton, “but you won’t get any milk out of it,” Hutjens said.

Some current feed alternatives on the market that represent a “good buy” based on the cost versus the breakeven level include shelled corn, corn silage, distillers’ grains, fuzzy cottonseed and wheat middlings, according to the dairy specialist.

Dairy farmers should also consider winter cereal grains, such as wheat or triticale, fall oats, sorghum, straw or cornstalks to help supplement diets due to current feed issues.