As promised last week, today I will discuss the economics of protein supplementation for the cow herd. Keep in mind I’m an animal scientist trying to do the job of an economist, with lots of assumptions, so this might fail! I had the opportunity to balance some rations recently, so the values used should be fairly representative by the end of October. I think you will see that there is no one-size-fits-all scenario when it comes to supplementation. Pricing per unit of protein consumed per day compares apples to apples. So, let’s dig in and look at some options.
One of the most popular, low-labor, self-regulating options for supplementing crop residue, dormant pasture, or even hay are protein bins. These are usually managed by placing a 200 or 250 pound bin per head at 20 to 30, with consumption rates varying between 1/2 and 2 pounds per head per day.
That said, not all tubs are created equal! The protein content can vary greatly from anything in teenagers to almost fifty percent. Protein sources also vary widely and many of the high percentage vats contain non-protein nitrogen (NPN) sources, such as urea, as a primary ingredient. A general rule is that NPNs should not contain more than a third of the total crude protein in the ration, so this is something to watch carefully.
To take an example, Bin A is a 30% protein, 200 pound bin with about a third of the 30% NPN, safely within guidelines. It retails for $115, which converts to $0.1725 per pound of protein. This should last eight days for a herd of 25 cows at the one pound consumption level, or $14.38 per day for the herd. Tube B is a 200 pound 16% protein tube that does not have an NPN. It sells for $70, or $0.056 per pound of protein, which sounds like the buy! However, the consumption of this tub varies between one and two pounds per day, which means that it will last four days for the same cowherd at the higher consumption level, or $17.50 per day.
Using this method, you can compare different protein percentage levels and purchase prices. Keep in mind that these two products may offer different levels of fat or energy, vitamins and minerals, have guarantees for consumption, and other products in the mix. All of these factors should be considered and weighed when looking for a purchase for your specific needs. For today’s purposes, we’re only evaluating them on the percentage of protein in the diet. Liquid-based supplements delivered in reservoirs can be rated similarly to the cooked, poured, or squeezed pots discussed here.
Other examples of protein supplements for the cow herd include: cubed “cake” products and by-product ingredients in meal form, such as: distillers cereals, wheat meal, soy flour and corn gluten meal, to name a few. Again, each brings different levels of protein, price, and other advantages or disadvantages to a complete ration. As noted last week, these are best consumed daily, but can be delivered every other day to save on the labor cost that comes with them.
The rations I evaluated earlier this week were a corn-based supplement for cows consuming good quality dry grass hay. Soybean meal (SBM – 48 percent) and dry distillers grain (DDG – 29 percent) were compared to bring the rations to approximately the same percentage of crude protein. Taking estimated prices into account, SBM was around $0.32/lb protein/head/day and DDG was around $0.55/lb protein/head/day, but the total cost of the ration was lower by $0.14/head/day for the DDG ration due to the reduced amount of maize. As a comparison to the bins, this DDG ration would represent a protein supplement cost of $13.75 per day for the 25 head herd, not including feeding labor.
The point of all these numbers and scenarios is for you to look at all the factors, do the math, and figure out which is the best option for your particular operation. Emptying bins, once a week on corn stalks half an hour from your house, may make more sense than feeding a cheaper corn/DDG ration to cows in a lot outside the window of your kitchen. Sharpen the pencil and do the math! Consult your local extension office if you need further help and advice.