cows in field

Best Nutrition Strategies During Times of High Grain and Input Costs

By Bill Kipp, Nutritionist and Dairy Consultant, Middlebury, VT, Heather Darby, UVM Extension, Sara Ziegler, UVM Extension

This article provides highlights from a presentation given at the NODPA Field Days held on September 29th, 2022. Organic grain prices continue to increase as well as most other input costs (Table 1). With ongoing supply chain issues, a war in Ukraine and stagnant milk prices, it is critical to find opportunities to feed more homegrown feed and reduce grain purchases. This article will outline 10 practical approaches to consider while managing high grain costs.

Table 1 Organic grain and milk prices, 2020-2021

#1- Forage quality

Forages must be the primary component of your ration and grain should be added to compliment the forage. The goal is to produce pasture and stored forages that can meet the targets shown in Table 2. Growing ample forage protein on the farm is easily achievable; however, producing adequate energy from forages can be more difficult. Forage energy is derived from soluble carbohydrates (sugar, starch, etc.) and digestible fibers.

Table 2. Stored Forage Quality Targets

To meet the energy targets outlined in Table 2, close attention needs to be paid to harvest timing, species/variety selection, soil fertility management, and storage.

Forage species differ dramatically in their potential to produce highly digestible fiber (Figure 1). Forage species also differ in their productivity depending on the season (Figure 2). As an example, perennial grasses and forage produced from small grains can have some of the most digestible fiber concentrations. Finding the right balance/combination of these forages that meets your management system can help greatly reduce purchase of grain. However, growing annual forages can often increase production costs so trade-offs need to be evaluated closely.

Forage species and variety evaluations are conducted by the University of Vermont each year and results can be found at

Figure 1: Fiber digestibility of various forages (Cumberland Valley Analytical Services).

Figure 2: Productivity of various forage types throughout the season

Clearly, there is more to producing high quality forages than just selecting the right species! Proper maintenance of soil pH and fertility levels is critical to growing high yields, high protein, and high energy feeds. Timely harvest is also critical to obtaining the most yield throughout the season and adequate levels of protein and digestible fiber. The more mature a plant becomes the less digestible it becomes too! Ultimately, optimizing yield and maximizing pounds of digestible fiber should be the goal. Remember these same principles apply to pasture too!

Storing feed for the winter is a must in our region and proper storage is essential to maintaining the quality of the feed over time. Much of our forage is stored as fermented feed and hence must have a protective shield to keep out pests and maintain the fermented state. Individually wrapped bales allow much flexibility and also easier management. Each bale is wrapped and damage to one doesn’t mean loss of an entire tube or pile. Wrapped bales can also be easily labeled and categorized by quality. This makes it easier to feed out or combine feeds into optimum rations.

#2 Farm-raised Grains

If you have sufficient land base and are already maximizing productivity and quality on your acres, then you may have an opportunity to raise some of your own grain or corn silage/snaplage. However, growing grain isn’t for everyone and comes with additional equipment needs and considerations.

#3 Higher Production Peaks

Remember, the first 100 days of lactation offer the highest margin over feed costs and attaining a higher peak translates throughout the rest of the lactation. The result is that the same or more milk can be produced from fewer cows, reducing associated expenses. Grouping cows by stage of lactation can be a means to “get the most” from these animals at the lowest cost.

#4 Grouping Cows

Although largely inconvenient and likely more management intensive, grouping cows into production levels can reduce feed costs, improve cow productivity, and also reduce nutrient waste. It promotes feeding valuable nutrients to benefit cows at different stages of lactation and results in optimum efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

#5 Dry Cow Management

Managing the milking herd optimally really starts at managing that herd when they’re dry. Grouping dry cows and ensuring they receive the right nutrition, including minerals, is critical to preparing them for lactation in a way that will maximize production and health. Below are some quick rules of thumb for dry cow group management:






Far cows (1-25 days)

Min 5#/cow/day

Good quality pasture, baleage, or hay ad lib

Dry cow mineral

Close up (25-50 days)

Min 5#/cow/day

Excellent quality pasture, baleage, or hay ad lib

Roasted soybean 2#/cow/day

Dry cow mineral

It is important to supply the close-up cow with adequate amounts of highly digestible protein. The developing fetus is requiring more protein leading up to calving. Roasted soybeans are palatable, available in the Northeast, and easy to store. Offer your best forage to these cows to enhance dry matter intake and avert ketosis.

In addition, you need to consider your facilities. There are lots of creative and low-cost options that will keep them comfortable. You must also have good pasture available close by where you can see them.

#6 Grain Storage

Due to shortage of drivers and increases in shipping costs, grain companies have begun to impose minimum delivery size requirements or may offer lower prices for larger orders. Having adequate storage can help minimize surcharges and, in some cases, keep your farm on the delivery route. Some grain companies offer assistance with upgrading grain bins to keep your business and lower their transportation costs.

#7 Grain By-products

Some feed components used in dairy rations, such as brewers waste, are from human food waste streams. These by-products may provide less expensive alternatives to purchasing whole grains. Unfortunately, there have been limited grain by-products available in the organic industry; however, as organic food production grows so does the opportunity to receive by-products. Also, local sources may be available.

#8 Grain Contracts

Price contracting is an excellent tool used by many farmers to lock in prices for their business. With known costs, budgeting and planning throughout the year can be easier. Many dairy farmers have routinely contracted with a local feed company for a certain tonnage of a complete grain mix (complete feed) or protein supplement to be delivered for a set time frame, usually one year. With high grain prices this has become more difficult but should still be investigated.

#9 Minerals

Mineral supplements are essential and should not be disregarded due to high costs. Many cooperatives offer pre-purchase minerals at a discounted price. For example, DFA leverages a milk check payment assignment to in return offer farmer members very competitive pricing on minerals. Pallet quantities are direct shipped from any one of three mineral distributers in the Northeast.

#10 Fertility and Breeding

It is always important to consider what type of animal is best suited to your land, facilities, management, and milk market. Make sure you are selecting animals that fit these criteria and culling animals that don’t even if they are desirable in other ways. If your conception rate is >50% you should delay breeding until 90 DIM. This will result in higher production peaks as peaks are higher on open cows.

If you are interested in reaching the presenters, please call or email NODPA: 413-772-0444, or email Nora Owens, Field Days Coordinator, at