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Turning Straw Into Gold

“Right now, we’ve been on the stockpiled grass of our home section for the last two weeks. So, it’s basically saved me $10 grand for spending six.”

– TOD WALLACE, MAFRI

Everyone socks away enough hay to get cattle through the winter. But how many stockpile a bit of extra grass with the goal of tacking a few extra weeks on to the grazing season?

Tod Wallace, a beef extension specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, explained how he did just that for his herd of 500 cows near Oak Lake.

“I know you’ve heard this time and time again, but that cost of production, it’s 60-70 per cent feeding that girl through the winter, right?” he said, in a presentation on alternative wintering strategies at a beef production meeting held here last week.

“Any time we can shorten that up is huge, and it’s definitely going to save some dollars in the end.”

At a time of year when the grass in most pastures has been pounded flat as a pool table, his operation is reaping the rewards of a grazing season planned even before the snow melted in spring.

Wallace normally winters his cattle on the home section, and begins feeding on Nov. 1. His typical wintering ration costs $1.30 per day per head, or about $5,000 per week to feed the herd.

With that in mind, he spent $6,000 for summer rent of a section of pasture land owned by a neighbour who sold his cattle herd late last winter.

Now, with the calves weaned, Wallace’s cows are back on the home section. The grass there – lush and thick from carefully dispersed manure from last winter’s feeding – has also bounced back after fall rains and recent mild weather.

“Right now, we’ve been on the stockpiled grass of our home section for the last two weeks. So, it’s basically saved me $10 grand for spending six. They’re still happy, content and staying within the fences, so I might even be able to get another week or two out there, which is huge.”

This year, his strategy of spending money to make money paid off. But if the weather had turned ugly, with a big dump of snow, he might have ended up losing on the deal, he noted.

“SCOOP-SHOVEL” COWS

In late fall, as pasture grass goes dormant and quality plummets, many producers reach for the barley or oats pails to keep their cows’ body condition scores from falling too sharply. Where grain is simply poured out onto the ground, greedier “scoop-shovel” cows may eat enough starchy grain to disrupt rumen function, reduce their capability to digest low-quality forages or make themselves sick.

Supplementation with protein has the opposite effect. Studies have shown additional protein fed to cattle on stockpiled low-quality grass stimulated rumen microbes to break down more forage. That quickens digestion and allows the cattle to eat more of the cheap stuff.

“This is important when they go into the slough-type materials,” said Wallace. “They’ll eat more of those low-lying lands that they don’t generally like.”

Wallace hasn’t needed to supplement his cattle yet, but when he does in the coming weeks, he’ll give them nine pounds of dried distillers grains (DDGs) every third day.

The type of protein supplement is important, since there are two basic kinds. Rumendigestible protein, such as soybean meal, is taken up largely by gut bacteria, while bypass proteins such as DDGs are broken down in the small intestine, where more goes to benefit the animal.

One way of cutting corners on the feed bill is to winter cows on a daily ration of 15 pounds of second-cut alfalfa and 22 pounds of straw per head. This ration has the advantage of being simple, natural and easy to source, he said.

For those who can get their hands on DDGs – easier to source every year, reportedly – nine pounds of the ethanol byproduct per day can balance out 22 pounds of straw per head.

Wallace’s own “backbone” ration is 45 pounds of barley silage plus 23 pounds of straw, with a dash of barley grain when the mercury dips to extremes.

Many producers are leery of feeding straw and stick to hay instead. But they should do that math to see how much that might be costing them, he said. Habitual hay feeders can stretch supplies by feeding 24 pounds of hay per head with 12 pounds of straw.

“If you save one bale a day throughout the entire winter, it could save you almost $9,000, based on a $50 bale of hay this year,” he said.

Of course, a feed test and adequate mineral supplementation is necessary for success with straw-based rations. An extra pair of eyes can also help prevent “barnyard blindness,” which can result in underfed and excessively thin cows.

Last March and April, many people called their MAFRI offices with reports of down cows. Such cases were mainly due to calcium deficiencies due to high silage, straw and grain in their rations.

“You need to have at least a 2:1 mineral in front of them because they are going to be very deficient in calcium,” he said. “So the closer they get to calving and they actually get into their milk, that’s when you’re going to see down cows.” [email protected]

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