Take a by-the-numbers approach to ration planning this year, especially if there are more feed types than usual in the yard.
That means getting feed tested to determine what nutrients are available in what quantity, to allow for formulating a winning ration.
Why it matters: Cattle producers are facing feed shortages and need to plan the most efficient rations possible to get through the winter.
Livestock specialists like Bart Lardner of the Western Beef Development Centre and Kim Ominski of the University of Manitoba have long argued producers should be making decisions based on such data.
This year is no different, but growing conditions have made it a more pointed argument.
Forage yields fell short across the Prairies this year, with poor pastures adding to the problem. In Manitoba, May’s cold, dry weather delayed turnout and ate away at feed reserves, matched by an early end to the grazing season in many parts of the province as both forage and dugouts dried out.
By midsummer, the province was already urging producers to consider alternative options like greenfeed, crop residue or silage. Bales became a common sight along roadways and in low areas normally ignored for feed. By August, some producers said they expected to turn to straw and feed additives to tide them over the winter.
The patchwork of feed sources may, indeed, help producers fill out their feed supply. At the same time, mixing and matching those sources has sparked questions from farmers facing down a far more complicated formula this year when it comes to planning their winter rations.
Ominski has fielded many of those calls in the last few weeks. The researcher, and former Manitoba Agriculture livestock specialist, says she has seen a surge of producers looking for guidance on rations.
“Forages are always one (feed) that can be highly variable. You can take any kind of a grass hay and the quality can range from like five per cent to 18 per cent crude protein, for example,” she said. “But producers are looking at using sort of alternative feeds this year.”
Byproducts like screening pellets, for example, can vary highly in nutrition from load to load, she said. Ominski expects an increase in the number of producers turning to crop byproducts to fill out feed.
Lardner is advising farmers to test all their feeds, including straw and poor-quality hay, and to make sure they’re familiar with their herd’s changing needs as winter drags on and both weather and gestation impact requirements.
“You need to know the energy, protein content and possibly even vitamin and mineral content,” he said.
Manitoba Agriculture sets crude protein needs at seven per cent for a mid-gestation cow, ramping up to 11 to 12 per cent crude protein once lactation starts. Likewise, a mature cow’s energy needs will jump from about 50 per cent TDN mid-gestation to 60 to 65 per cent after calving, an energy level similar to replacement heifers, although a heifer’s crude protein requirements will still hover between eight to 10 per cent.
Feed mix will also impact mineral requirements, according to the province, something that may be of concern to producers broadening feed sources this year. Manitoba Agriculture guidelines suggest an even 1:1 calcium-to-phosphorus mineral package for alfalfa, but a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio for greenfeed or straw.
Watching the herd
There’s also going to be changing needs as the herd progresses through the winter.
“Obviously, as those cows are getting closer to calving, which is out there next spring or early summer, you want to save your best feed, because her energy and protein requirements are going to be at their peak,” Lardner said. “They’re going to increase when she starts to lactate after calving. If you’ve got some lower-quality, roughage-type feed or maybe building a straw-based ration… then you might not put as much supplement into that ration if she’s just in first-trimester pregnancy.”
Farmers may also want to consider nitrate testing for “opportunity” feeds like hail-damaged or drought-damaged crops, he added.
Producers may also want to pad that ration if animals are already feeling the strain of poor grazing.
Ominski advised producers to add a body conditioning score into their plan, something she says will help identify animals that need to top up their nutrition and help producers group livestock according to nutrition needs.
“For example, cows with lower body condition could be fed with preg(nant) heifers,” she suggested.
The province has also warned ranchers to keep body condition in mind.
Kathleen Walsh, livestock specialist with the province, said fall body condition is too often ignored when farmers approach their winter feed plan.
“Weaning the calves will reduce the cow’s daily nutrient requirement and give her the opportunity to maintain or regain condition before winter,” she said by email. “As cows progress from mid- to late gestation and temperatures drop, it becomes increasingly difficult to put on condition.”
Nutrition requirements are 20 per cent higher for a lactating cow than a dry cow if the animal is to avoid losing body condition, she estimated. Manitoba Agriculture suggests cows have a 3.5 body condition score going into winter.
Any changing feed should also be introduced slowly, according to the province. Manitoba Agriculture suggests farmers transition the herd over 10-14 days, depending on the type of feed.
Turning to technology
Those without a nutritionist on call might want to get a technological boost.
Both Ominski and Lardner singled out CowBytes, a ration-balancing program put out by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
At $50, Lardner argued that it might be an affordable option for producers hoping to take the guesswork out of their ration.
“You can plug in the class of livestock, their weight, when they’re going to calve, the environment the animal’s going to be fed in — so, rain, snow, temperature — all of those things,” he said.
The program may also help producers keep better track of feed inventory or, working backwards, help make decisions on a cull, Ominski added.
“You take a look at the best-quality feed and you want to use that repeatedly for all your different costs of cattle, but obviously you’ve got a limited amount of it,” she said. “That program really helps you strategically say, ‘What feedstuffs am I using at what time as the animal progresses through pregnancy?’ and then to be able to do a running inventory.”
There may be slight wiggle room in those ration recommendations, Lardner said. A farmer might drop to 90 to 95 per cent of the nutrient requirement if cattle are in better body condition going into the winter, although he cautioned that a full nutrient requirement should always be the goal.
“The big thing though is to make sure that they’re watching their cow condition,” he said. “We don’t want these cows to come out in the spring in thin condition.”
A thin cow may get through calving, but take longer to reach first estrous, have lighter calves or poorer colostrum quality, Ominski warned.
Both Ominski and Lardner urged producers to bring in a professional nutritionist or speak to one of Manitoba Agriculture’s extension staff if they have any questions.
For her part, Ominski is urging farmers to finish their ration plan sooner rather than later.
“As we go through the winter, the price is going to increase, so being able to source that hay now means that you can feed those cows for a lower cost, because you’ve got everything lined up,” she said.