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Cattle producers have forage concerns after wet season

High nitrate levels in frost-stressed crops can be fatal for cattle

Cattle producers should test their feed this year because wet weather has compromised the nutritional value in late-seeded cereal crops, and cold weather could make them potentially dangerous, a provincial forage specialist says.

“We’re quite concerned about nitrates this year after the stress that the plants have been under all summer and then with the recent frost and the crops being late,” said Pam Iwanchysko, from MAFRD, during the year’s first StockTalk webinar on September 16.

Cattle who ingest feed with high nitrate levels can suffocate and die a fairly quick death, she said.

Iwanchysko stressed the importance of testing late-seeded cereal crops and plants hit by a hard, killing frost with a wet chemical analysis — which is more accurate than standard testing. If plants look droopy and dead after a frost, she said to immediately cut the crop because the roots will continue to move nitrates into the plant.

If, however, the plant is lightly touched by frost, and weather is expected to warm up, it is better to let the plants continue to grow and use the nitrates.

“Nitrates can be fed to animals but it should be fed cautiously,” she said. “It’s really important to get it feed tested. Know what the level is and then we can make a recommendation on how to salvage that feed.”

Wet weather, poor protein

While it is too early to know the official state of provincial forage supplies, because harvest production reports aren’t due until November, many beef producers in flood-damaged areas of Manitoba say they aren’t sure they will have enough cattle feed to make it through the winter.

Some producers, with poor-quality forage, are supplementing alternative grains in an attempt to boost protein and energy levels. While Iwanchysko said this idea is on the right track, farmers need to ensure they get the proper nutritional balance.

Producers are also warned to be wary of toxins created by crop fungus diseases such as fusarium and ergot, both of which have been on the rise in Western Canada.

cattle nutrition chart

A cow’s nutrition changes depending on the stage of production and whether the animal is gestating or lactating. (click for full view)
photo: MAFRD

Cattle require five ingredients in order to maintain proper nutrition — water, energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. Grains are a source of energy, but not a significant source of protein. “I often get producers who think if they’re feeding grain, they’re doing everything correctly but that’s not always the case,” she said.

Protein levels are crucial to good health, particularly for young calves developing muscles and pregnant or lactating cows. Cattle that don’t get enough protein can abort their calves partway through gestation, and they will likely be more susceptible to disease. The ideal target for alfalfa hay is 20 per cent protein.

Heavy rains tend to wash a lot of the protein off the leaves on alfalfa plants, meaning the forage will be more like straw than high-quality hay.

A good-quality mixed alfalfa grass hay contains around 12 to 15 per cent protein. Straw, on the other hand, contains a very low amount of protein — around 3.5 to five per cent, Iwanchysko said.

Good filler

Straw is good for stoking the cow’s rumen, but producers should be aware that cows can eat only 1.25 per cent of their body weight. So be sure to leave room for energy-rich and protein-rich food.

diagram of a cow rumen

Cows require nutrients by fermenting feed in their rumen – a specialized stomach.
photo: MAFRD

She recommends supplementing poor forage with grain for energy and oilseeds — such as canola meal and soybean meal — for protein. Producers can also feed cattle protein-rich byproducts like dried distillers grains, wheat middlings and bakery waste.

The required nutrients vary throughout the reproductive year. “(Cows) are very similar to us. They have five components that need to be balanced according to the stage in their production cycle. These requirements change throughout the feeding period and based on the environment or stage of gestation, stage of lactation.”

The best way to ensure feed contains what it needs to get cows through the winter is to have it tested.

“(You’ll have) peace of mind knowing what you’re feeding your animals and making sure you’re meeting the animal’s requirements.”

To test feed drop by a local GO office to pick up a probe tool. Collect eight to 10 samples from each field. Be sure to collect from different bales within a lot that have been harvested on the same day. And return the sample to the MAFRD employee for analysis once you’ve finished.

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