This is your father’s forage treatment

Ammoniating poor-quality feed is an old technique that producers may want to keep in their tool box

Manitoba’s provincial hay and livestock experts want producers to consider winding back the clock if they have to make the best of poor feed.

For many livestock producers, ammoniating forage is something that fell out of vogue decades ago.

But now some of those experts want to bring it back to the table, with producers now coming off of two poor feed years and with some hay prices still hovering above what many producers would like to pay.

Why it matters: Ammoniating feed has largely fallen out of favour in recent years, but in situations where forage is scarce or hay prices are high, it could go a long way to improving the value of marginal feed.

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“It’s a proven technology that we’ve kind of forgotten,” provincial crop nutrition specialist John Heard said. “But in years like last year, in particular, when we have such crappy yields of hay but we can access straw, it really makes sense that we would be improving the quality of that straw where we can with ammonia. Or, we can even improve the quality of some hay by using this. It’s just a case of taking this technology off the shelf and dusting it off and showing people how to do it again.”

While not a livestock specialist, Heard’s expertise on crop nutrition, and in particular, the handling of anhydrous ammonia as a fertilizer, has added his voice to those provincial staff hoping to bring the practice back into the limelight.

Shawn Cabak, who is one of the province’s livestock specialists, noted that, while hay is more plentiful this year, the practice may be attractive for economic reasons, given hay prices.

A September report from the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association noted that, while hay shortages are not expected to be as dire this year, alfalfa was still going for seven to 10 cents a pound.

Ammoniation can improve roughages “significantly” in terms of energy, digestibility and protein, Cabak noted.

“With ammoniation, you can take something like straw and wild hay and double the protein,” he said. “You can increase digestibility 10 to 30 per cent and you can increase intake 15 to 20 per cent.”

The livestock specialist helped organize a demonstration and education day on forage ammoniation Oct. 1 near Westbourne, Man.

Five types of low-quality feed get put to the test during a forage ammoniation workshop near Westbourne, Man., Oct. 1.
photo: Shawn Cabak

Applying ammonia at three per cent of dry matter weight, and counting the cost of plastic, Cabak estimated the process cost an extra 1.6 cents per pound of dry matter to ammoniate the five feeds (ranging from wild hay and mature alfalfa-grass mix to straw, canola chaff and wheat chaff) on display.

“It does add a cent and a half in cost, but when you look at hay the last couple of years, it was up to eight, 10 cents a pound and, if you can take straw that costs you two, 2-1/2 cents a pound, add a cent and a half for your anhydrous and plastic and you have some decent-quality feed for four cents a pound,” he said. “That’s fairly economical in a drier drought year.”

Those price points would be closer in a year with surplus feed, he added.

The process also acts as a preservative, potentially avoiding spoilage in high-moisture feeds, Cabak noted.

That might be good news for anyone who has taken to baling corn stover, according to Robert Blair of Shur-Gro’s Westbourne branch.

Although the practice has won Manitoba advocates, corn stover is more commonly used in the U.S. due to Manitoba’s late harvest and higher moisture concerns.

Information published on the Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development (MARD) website urges producers to ammoniate high-moisture forages as quickly as possible to avoid heating, and to only bale enough feed as can be stacked, covered and ammoniated in a day.

Considerations

As with any ammonia handling, safety will be key, according to Blair. The Shur-Gro Westbourne branch sells about 1,000 tonnes of anhydrous ammonia every fall, largely for fertilizer.

“It’s really dangerous stuff… anything it touches, if you get it on you, it freezes,” he said.

“You always make sure the wind’s at your back and always open or close valves slowly to see how much pressure’s behind them,” he added.

Should a producer end up in an ammonia cloud, Blair urged taking small breaths while extracting themselves in order to limit the amount of ammonia inhaled.

Five types of low-quality feed get put to the test during a forage ammoniation workshop near Westbourne, Man., Oct. 1.
photo: Shawn Cabak

Likewise, Blair stressed protective wear. Pumping ammonia into a feed pile might force a producer into a hasty tape patch should the plastic covering the pile have a hole, he noted, and producers should be wearing proper gloves, masks and other protective clothing.

Should a producer be accidentally exposed, a container of water should be within easy reach to flush the gas from the exposed face or skin, according to documents put out by the provincial government.

The province also warns producers to keep stacks away from buildings, since extreme conditions can cause the combination of air and ammonia to become explosive. Documents published by MARD suggest stacks should be at least two to three metres apart to avoid ammonia getting trapped between the rows.

Producers with high-moisture feeds may also have to tighten that plastic as the stack settles, the province advises.

Cabak echoed Blair’s warning on wind direction. Producers should also be using plastic at least five millimetres thick, he noted, with special attention to make sure there are no holes.

“And then you have to ensure that the stack is properly sealed all the way around (with) enough dirt to hold down the plastic,” he said.

After sealing, stacks are left covered for roughly five to six weeks, depending on temperature, to ensure ammonia is properly absorbed.

The province says stacks should then be exposed three to four days prior to feeding to allow excess ammonia to leach away.

Moisture adds yet another consideration, Cabak noted. Producers will want their forage moisture to hit at least 10 per cent, while 15 per cent is ideal.

“The moisture absorbs the ammonia, so if the feed is too dry, the ammonia won’t be absorbed properly,” he said.

But while ammoniated forage can dramatically improve poor feed, documents from the province also warn that they should be used only as part of a well-balanced ration plan. Likewise, the resulting forage will contain non-protein nitrogen, and producers should avoid feeding it alongside other feeds with non-protein nitrogen.

The province hopes to hold another ammoniation demonstration this season for higher-moisture corn, Cabak said. In the meantime, he added, local extension staff may be able to provide information or help anyone interested in the practice to source piping.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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