Professional nutritionists — what can they do for me, what are they worth and how can I find a good one? These are questions producers ask themselves when seeking advice on their feeding program. For many, their feed company has been and remains the primary source of nutritional expertise. However, today there is an increasing array of choices when it comes to nutritional services. As with any major management decision, hiring a nutritionist can have a significant impact on your business and it is worth your time to investigate the choices available.
First, let’s look at what a nutritionist can do for you. As with your veterinarian, banker or accountant, a good nutritionist will become an integral member of your management team. From a technical perspective, he/she will provide you with a variety of services. First and foremost, your nutritionist will work to develop an efficient and cost-effective feeding program. This includes maximizing the use of home-grown or locally accessed feeds. This will require developing a feed sampling and testing program, particularly for your forages. Knowledge of the nutrient content of your forage base will minimize the need to purchase expensive commercial supplements and allow you to purchase the right combination of off-farm feeds to meet your production goals. Cow-calf operations benefit from rations designed to optimize reproductive performance while backgrounding and finishing operations are provided with a series of rations that allow them to achieve consistent and predictable gains, improve feed efficiency, and minimize feed costs.
In addition to balanced least-cost rations, your nutritionist will provide you and your staff with advice and programs aimed at improving day-to-day management. For cow-calf operators this includes working to develop effective mineral feeding programs, heifer and yearling bull development programs and advice on a variety of intensive (pen feeding) or extensive (swath or bale grazing) feeding systems designed to support pregnancy and lactation needs of the cow herd.
Feedlot nutritionists will work with clients to develop feed processing, feed delivery and bunk management expertise. They will assist with analysis and evaluation of feed intake and pen close-out records and provide you with a series of step-up rations and projections on cattle performance. A good nutritionist will also be your “eyes and ears” to new science and technology that impacts the cost of production.
Finding a good nutritionist can be a challenge as you need to have someone who is not only technically sound but also one you can work with and trust. To complicate matters, as stated above you have a number of choices. For example, in Canada we have numerous feed companies that do business on a regional and national scale. In the vast majority of cases, these companies employ experienced professional nutritionists and sales consultants who have undergone extensive training. They often go the extra mile to service your needs. Keep in mind however, that their goal is to sell you product and/or services.
Private consultants are usually independent nutritionists who provide you with “unbiased” advice on your feeding program. For example your consultant may develop specifications for a supplement specific to your operation and then have several feed companies bid on the business, thus helping to ensure competitive pricing. Another advantage of the private consultant is that he/she brings not only their experience to your operation but also that of their clients. This “pool” of experience can be invaluable in providing you with advice on issues that others have gone through before you.
Private consultants are paid in a number of ways including hourly charges, yearly retainer fees or on a specific amount based on the number of “head days.” The fact that they are paid on the basis of the advice they provide and are not selling you a product, is the basis for their claim to provide unbiased service. However, some consultants have developed proprietary premixes or technology that they market to their clients. In such cases, consulting charges are typically incorporated into the cost of the product sold. As with feed companies, the value of the product and quality of service provided should be paramount in your selection decision.
Other sources of nutritional expertise include provincial livestock specialists and your veterinarian. Services offered as well as area of expertise can vary, so it is important to make contact to determine what role they can play in helping you design and manage your feeding program.
So now that we know what we are looking for, the question becomes how do you find a good nutritionist? Perhaps the best advice I can give you is to talk to other producers and industry players and find out which companies or consultants are active in your area and get a feel for their reputation. As the saying goes — the cream tends to rise to the top!
JohnMcKinnon isabeefcattle nutritionistat theUniversityof Saskatchewan