The price of dairy concentrates has increased by around £100-£120/t for May from winter contract prices and with feed accounting for almost 70% of variable costs, it is important to ensure any purchased feed is being used efficiently.

With milk prices at current levels and no signs of a price drop in the short-term, most will be keen to maintain current production levels. Any reduction in concentrate use must be planned to ensure early lactation cows are not negatively impacted, compromising peak yield, encouraging body condition loss and affecting cycling behaviour and conception rates.

Regular forage analyses are important so rations can be correctly balanced with energy and protein according to the desired level of milk output. This is even more crucial if rations are changed regularly to take advantage of a good buy at the time or inconsistent availability of feeds.

Grouping cows can help to reduce concentrate and feed additive usage in the base ration. If feeding the same TMR to the whole herd, could you split the herd into a high and low yielding group and reduce concentrate levels to the mid-late lactation cows that are confirmed in-calf? The risk is that cows may drop in milk when moving between groups, partly as a result of social stress so try and move a few cows into the new group at the same time. This approach can work well if feeding in the parlour to target concentrates to those that need it, depending on their yield and condition.

Alternatively, grouping first lactation animals separately from older cows would be beneficial. According to Dr Bill Weiss, from Ohio State University, heifers housed separately show higher lifetime production due to less stress as they experience fewer aggressive interactions than they would when housed with older cows. They also have higher feed intakes with more meals per day, benefitting rumination and longer lying times. The benefits are evident even when cows and first lactation animals are fed the same ration.

Make use of any moist feeds available. They are generally good value for money compared to concentrates. While they tend to be seen as forage replacers, they will also help reduce the amount of protein supplementation required. Could compound feed in the parlour, out-of-parlour feeders or robots be replaced with a home mix or blend? Blends are cheaper to manufacture and so will cost less per tonne for the same percentage protein in the feed. The downside is the risk of separation of raw materials, delivering an inconsistent product and more waste.

If there are a few different feed additives going into the milking ration, can they be justified? Some may not be necessary for mid-late lactation cows such as protected fat or rumen buffers if concentrate inclusion is lower and there is less risk of acidosis.

Make sure that any additive fed is doing a job. Did it get the desired response when it was added? Was it included because of an issue and does that issue still exist – for example, heating of wholecrop or maize silage and so a mycotoxin binder was added. Perhaps clamp management has improved and heating or spoilage on the face is not an issue now.

Also review youngstock rations. Has their forage been analysed recently and are heifers weighed regularly to know that they are hitting their growth rate target? Many farms feed the same heifer ration right the way through to pre-calving, with in-calf heifers tending to be slightly overfed. Depending on the forage quality, heifers confirmed in calf could get away with less concentrate in the latter part of the rearing period and in some cases ad lib good quality silage will suffice – ideally 11ME and 13.5% protein on a dry matter basis.

For many, first cut silage is now in the clamp. How full is the clamp and was the yield as expected? It is worth taking a core sample six weeks after clamping to test for dry matter as well as quality, so that the total dry matter available can be calculated based on the volume in the clamp. This aids decisions on manure applications and acreage required for future cuts or whether to take some cereal as wholecrop.

It is also worth considering stock numbers going into the winter. Are they likely to change much and if forage is going to be tight, review culling policy while cull cow prices are good. Are there cows not paying their way? What is the ration costing per cow and is their level of milk output justifying their position in the herd? By removing under performers, freeing up feed space and lying space may actually allow overall milk output to be maintained, especially where stocking density was previously high.

High input costs are not likely to go away anytime soon and so scrutinising feed costs and feed management to improve efficiency and forward planning for the winter will be worthwhile when margins are so tight.