Livestock experts worry that history might be repeating itself when it comes to nutrition and the upcoming breeding season.
Last spring, veterinarians and provincial livestock extension staff raised the alarm over open cow rates. Short feed in 2018 had been compounded by a brutally cold winter in early 2019, as well as cold temperatures in March and moisture concerns. Pasture regrowth had been extremely limited, provincial extension staff warned, while producers were hitting the bottom of their stored feed and finding little extra to buy.
The hard spring would set the tone for the rest of the growing season. Pastures struggled with dry conditions for most of 2019, while lack of moisture led to the province’s second straight year of critically low hay yields.
Concerns proved valid when producers took stock of their open rates in late 2019. In early 2020, Ashern veterinarian Dr. Keri Hudson Reykdal told the Manitoba Co-operator that she had commonly seen open rates between 20-30 per cent.
Ray Bittner, provincial livestock in the Interlake and one of those worried over conception last year, says he is seeing similar problems on the horizon.
“My predictions are exactly the same this year,” he said.
Why it matters: Experts say pastures haven’t recovered from the beating they took over the last two years of drought-like conditions. At the same time, feed is short, and producers are anxiously awaiting the return to grass.
Feed supplies are once again low, despite increased scrutiny on feed plans. Bittner and his colleagues say this year was, again, among their busiest for feed troubleshooting, while provincial staff attempted to get ahead of the curve last fall with a series of workshops on overwintering cattle on short feed.
“Almost everybody has had to go through with buying something to make it through the winter and with the recent prices of the sale of animals, it certainly hasn’t encouraged buying the last little bit of feed,” Bittner said.
April saw a downturn in the cattle market as the COVID-19 pandemic suspended or slowed processing at major packing plants.
There is some feed on sale in his area at prices comparable to several months ago, but there has been little interest, Bittner noted. He added that reluctance to take on extra cost likely has more to do with that lack of interest than lack of need.
Pam Iwanchysko, livestock specialist in the northwest, echoed concerns over the next breeding cycle. Cattle have their highest nutritional requirements in calving season and the first month of lactation, she said, and producers would ideally be feeding their best feed now, rather than scrimping for supply.
“In some cases, they’re just feeding what they have left and it might not be adequate nutrition,” she said. “It would be good for them to speak with one of us in regards to seeing where they’re at nutritionally.”
Shawn Cabak, provincial livestock specialist in central Manitoba, also said he is still working with producers to stretch feed until pastures are ready.
“There are options out there,” he said. “We’re getting less options as we go later into the spring.”
A cool start to the growing season has highlighted the need for feed. Overnight lows remained well below freezing for most of April, while daytime highs failed to break 10 C for most of the first half of the month.
Both Bittner and Iwanchysko say pasture regrowth was delayed by the cold as of mid-April, while Cabak says the chance for an early turnout this year has already dwindled.
“April has been colder than normal so, right now, I don’t think we’re going to be earlier than normal, especially if the pastures are in tough condition, which a lot of them are, being overgrazed the last couple of years,” he said. “It’ll be in poor condition. It will take longer to grow this spring, so I think at best we’re at a normal turnout and possibly even a little later.”
Keep off the grass
Livestock extension staff are once again urging producers to hold off pasture turnout until pastures green up.
Manitoba’s pastures have taken a beating in recent years. Feeding extended into both spring and fall the past two seasons, while dry conditions led to widespread reports of pasture feeding last summer as forage ran out.
Cabak noted the balancing act between producers running out of feed, and the risk of further stressing already stressed pastures.
“The cattle want to go to grass, but at the same time, we don’t want to jump the gun and turn them out too early just because it sets the grass back. It just takes so much volume when the grass is short and high volume to meet the livestock requirements,” he said.
Iwanchysko urged producers to wait until grasses reach the three-leaf stage before turning cattle out.
Premature turnout risks reducing pasture capacity later in the season, she noted, echoing her advice from last spring. In 2019, Iwanchysko also warned that producers in her area risked stressing pastures by turning cattle out too early after producers began to run out of winter feed.
“I can’t stress that enough,” she said. “It does so much damage to the plant in terms of the root capability to be pumping up carbohydrates into those plants to get going,” she said.
Producers in her area did have to cull heading into the winter, she noted, something that she hopes will decrease the need for extra feed this spring.