Cheap corn could be a lifesaver for Manitoba cattle producers who are short of feed this winter, but a provincial livestock specialist warns it must be handled with care.
“Grain might be the ideal part of your diet this year,” Ray Bitner, livestock specialist with MAFRD, told listeners during the latest Stocktalk webinar.
After calculating the costs of various grains, he determined corn at today’s low prices, is the cheapest this year because farmers get approximately 12.9 lbs. of total digestible nutrients (TDN) for every dollar spent.
Oats, feed well and don’t need to be processed, but only produce around 6.9 lbs. per dollar of TDN.
Feeding cattle primarily grain, instead of an entirely alfalfa-grass diet, this winter could save producers approximately 40 cents per head a day, he said.
Grain-heavy diets have some drawbacks though. Cattle on high-grain diets might start chewing wood, looking for trees and old wood fences. High-grain diets also put cattle at risk of developing acidosis — an increased acidity and upset in the rumen and digestive tract.
Cattle that have consumed a toxic amount of grain may lie quietly, often with their head turned toward their flank, and exhibit signs of severe dehydration. Sometimes their eyes may be sunken.
They may stagger and bump into objects as they walk, exhibit an abnormal gain, swelling legs and they almost always have diarrhea.
If these symptoms are spotted the animal should be denied access to water for the next 12 to 24 hours and taken off grain altogether. Supply good-quality, palatable hay and antacids to neutralize the lactic acids. In severe cases, the most economical response is to put the animal down.
But such wrecks are preventable. Bitner recommends feeding cattle consistently, not changing their diets abruptly and observing the animals regularly.
He gathered a team of MAFRD nutritionists to determine a ration schedule that is safe, but also economical: feed 16 lbs. of hay daily for every cow along with 12 lbs. of corn and 1.5 lbs. of beef protein supplement, which is high in vitamins, minerals, and contains monensin, every day.
“That’s it. That should work for a body condition score of 2.5, 3-3.5 out of the five systems.” Be sure to also include a high calcium mineral and extra vitamin E.
Since the ration is minimal, he warns, the cattle may race you to the trough and feeder every morning.
“So going out there with a pail is not going to work. They’re going to bowl you over and it’s going to hurt.”
He provided some practical, on-the-ground advice, on what to do instead.
At 8:30 in the morning, put 50 per cent of the corn in the troughs of a locked pen so the cattle can’t get in. Then open the gate and, as the animals file in, place the hay outside the pen. Once they finish eating move them out of the pen and close the gate again. Do the same at 3 in the afternoon.
As the temperatures cool, increase the amount of feed. “Normally when we say increase the amount of feed we mean increase the amount of grain product. In this case, we’re going to say the opposite,” said Bitner.
For every animal, add two pounds of hay for every 5° it drops below -15 C. So on days the temperature dips to -20 add two pounds of hay. At -30 add six pounds.
Don’t worry about processing corn or oats for the cattle — the cost of labour is not worth the time spent doing the extra work with today’s prices.
Before starting the high-grain diets, Bitner recommends producers stop by their local GO office.
“We have some experience that will help you get this done properly. We want it to go well for you and we want to document if it doesn’t go well for you.”