A TMR Mixer for Every Beef Farm?

Video of Total Mixed Ration (TMR) Mixer

A good starting point for the discussion of the value of a TMR (total mixed ration) mixer is to accept that this is a very defendable nutritional paradigm. The idea that we can create a ration where we can combine very different feedstuffs, with every mouthful being the same, combined with acidosis prevention seems to make this one a no-brainer. But is it? This article will make cases both for and against this very important nutritional tool.

The Case For TMRs On All farms

With the advent of the 'kitchen blender' style of mixer (vertical auger), TMRs have accessed a whole new audience of farmers. The typical mixers of a decade ago were the horizontal augers, which served the feedlot and dairy sectors well. However, their major weakness was the inability to use large amounts of hay. They were inflexible in forage harvest method and could not realistically use large bale hay or baleage. The newer breed of mixers allows maximum flexibility with ingredients, permitting use of various commodities, forage types and storage methods. The manufacturers of these mixers have also recently begun to validate their mixing performance, which is especially important for rations which include urea or medications. Initially, many of the 'kitchen blender', vertical-auger style units did not have mixing efficacy data… a fact which may still persist in some brands. They were designed primarily for convenience, without regard to mixing precision beyond visual checks.

Currently, I primarily recommend these vertical-auger style mixers (provided the manufacturer has mixing verification data), specifically because of their flexibility. So today, even a cow-calf operator who feed mostly round bales can participate in the TMR advantage. But why would they? Numerous articles have been written about using commodities to stretch hay inventories. The TMR mixer becomes the perfect tool to use with wet or pre-processed commodities (distillers, screenings, pellets) in forage based rations. It is also the perfect tool to facilitate the use of poor feeds such as straws, stovers and overly mature hay with fermented feeds. Furthermore, the machine allows the addition of urea as a 'protein' source, and becomes a means to include ionophores to boost feed efficiency in cow rations without using a pelleted supplement. In summary, the benefits of vertical-auger TMR mixers are:

  1. Flexibility
  2. Inclusion of any type of forage/storage method, at high levels
  3. Utilization of low quality forages
  4. Inclusion of commodities
  5. Ration homogeneity - acidosis control
  6. Mixing precision
  7. Ability to use urea (NPN) in rations
  8. Ability to add medications - including ionophores to boost cow efficiency
  9. Potential for improved feed efficiency from properly balanced rations

So the reasons are clear why a TMR mixer could be useful on every beef farm, including cow operations in addition to the entire cattle feeding sector. The advantages in the cow ration may be a little different than in the feedlot, but it's the same tool, so of definite advantage in cow/calf to finish operations!

The Case Against TMRs

This technology comes with both capital costs (starting at $25K) and operating costs (tractor, fuel, labour). The feeding infrastructure almost certainly needs to be fence-line feeding or some approximation.

Also, the forage in TMRs needs to be processed at harvest or at mixing… so the savings of not chopping in the field are lost when processing happens in the mixer. Based on field evaluations, I suspect baleage shredded in the mixer is the most inefficient (energy, cost perspective) way to get haylage into a TMR.

So the downside of TMRs is:

  1. Price
  2. Operational costs (fuel, wear, labour)
  3. Feeding infrastructure

These machines do have a downside…and it largely relates to the economics, especially if the feeding opportunities don't match the machinery cost.

And The Verdict Is…

The bottom line on this newer breed of TMR mixers is that they give extreme flexibility to ration formulation and feeding. They provide a great opportunity to mix and match all forage types, commodities and feed additives. Capital and operating costs and labour makes them more viable in large herds with full time managers. Likely the price tag will be a disincentive to average and even above average sized herds, so I'd expect this only to take off in cow herds of 100 or 150 plus. In these larger herds, potential feed cost reductions can quickly pay for the machine, so that's the group where they will likely be most heavily adopted.

An Alternative To TMRs

Alternate day feeding is one way of using two different feeds. For example, in a cow herd that is using NPN-treated corn silage and a poor quality hay to balance a third trimester ration, feed corn silage the first day, hay the next, and repeat. This will work as long as the feeds are not too different, assuming there is enough bunk space (that fence-line feeder again). If a farm can do a really good job of alternate day feeding or grazing, the mixer may not provide an advantage. For the grazier who only needs 120 days winter feed, anything more than a dry hay system may be a waste because the daily feed savings don't have enough days to offset the capital costs. But if a cow operation can't do that and wants to compete in the cow business, the vertical-auger TMR mixer may be tough to beat.

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