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Shortage of livestock feed leads to balancing act

Cattle can eat anything from potatoes to grain byproducts, but coming up with the right nutrition for the right price is the challenge

Start stretching feed early in the season to make sure you’re not managing a late-winter crisis, extension staff say.

It’s been a dismal weather year from start to finish — but at least there will be plenty of feed grain.

That’s the searching for a silver lining thought among Manitoba livestock producers facing yet another year of scrimping and culling to get their cattle through the winter. Stressed pastures, silage harvest difficulties, extended feeding on both ends of the grazing season and yet another year of seriously lacking forage harvests have set the stage for creative ration recipes again this year.

Provincial extension staff, however, are reminding producers that those creative rations also come with more homework if producers are to avoid a wreck.

One farmer’s trash…

Nobody’s happy to see what happened this harvest, but grain woes may help livestock producers scrambling for winter feed. Some grain fields spent weeks in the swath this fall after wet weather and early snows put the brakes on harvest. About 10 per cent of spring wheat remained in the field in southwestern Manitoba as of Oct. 29, according to the provincial crop report.

Farmers reported significant sprouting issues on those late-harvested acres.

Provincial staff have noted the feed opportunity, although livestock specialist Shawn Cabak warned producers to measure those sprouted or light grains by weight, instead of volume, to avoid accidentally shortchanging themselves on feed.

“There’s never been a shortage of grains that can be fed to livestock, whether it’s oats, barley, corn, even good-quality grains,” Cabak said. “Now that we have more feed grains that are only going to be usable for livestock feed, it will improve the economics of feeding the cattle this winter for those who are short of feed and needing to purchase, and a pound of grain, on average, can replace about a pound and a half of hay.”

Making the most…

Provincial staff are also stressing a feed test if producers are reaching for screening pellets. Pellets are easy to find and may be self-fed, provincial livestock specialist Tim Clarke said, but feed value can vary widely from load to load. Clarke also warned producers to keep toxins like ergot and moulds in mind, since the content of those screening pellets is not always clear.

“If the feed pellets come from a dust cleaning system from a grain elevator, they could have a lot of dust and dirt in them,” he said. “You can have the things that they don’t want in high-quality grain for export.”

Pellets drawn from oilseeds, meanwhile, come with their own challenges. Although those screenings are high in energy, they also come with a high fat content and should make up no more than 10 to 15 per cent of a ration, provincial staff said during a series of workshops this fall on stretching feed.

Molasses may help with straw palatability, staff also said during the workshops, but added that farmers should be wary of relying on that molasses for nutrient value.

The practice will likely increase uptake, but is unlikely to increase feed value as much as producers want for the money they’re spending, Cabak noted. At the same time, molasses will not meet mineral requirements and, although calcium can be added, requires an extra investment in mineral additives and protein.

Ammonization may be another option, and one that Cabak notes has been rarely used in the last 20 years, whether because of the $30- to $40-per-ton cost for supplies, or the caution required during the process. Ammonizing straw and roughage can make those marginal feeds 10 to 30 per cent more digestible, double protein and see 10 to 20 per cent more feed intake, Cabak said.

Remember minerals…

Rations heavy on straw, annuals and grain also tend to be low in calcium and may need extra mineral or limestone added, producers were also warned. If not limestone, those low-calcium diets should come with a 2:1 or 3:1 calcium-to-phosphorus mineral ration.

“Annual crops are a lot lower in calcium to a legume,” Cabak noted.

Provincial staff have warned producers to keep a careful eye out for any vitamin and mineral gaps in a ration they are not accustomed to, and to read the label of any additives to confirm how that product fills in those nutrient needs.

“It’s always important when we’re looking at different mineral options to read the label,” Cabak said. “Minerals are not created equally, whether it’s a 1:1 or 2:1. The macro and the micro mineral levels vary, so it’s important that you maximize the minerals that you’re getting for what you’re paying.”


Producers may link nitrate issues with frost, but forage experts warn that any stress to the plant around harvest, such as drought or hail, can also lead to dangerous nitrate levels. Annuals harvested for feed this year have certainly had stress.

Some producers have already got a nasty shock with their feed tests. Cabak confirmed that the province has noted feeds coming in with high nitrate levels. Other individual producers have noted those high nitrates in hay that has high weed content.

“Anyone who’s putting up greenfeed this year for feed should have it tested for nitrates just to be safe,” he said. “A lot of the feed can still be fed, even with nitrates, but you have to manage it.”

Some weeds, like kochia, can actually rate high on feed quality, although weed experts warn that kochia bales can become a nightmare for spreading the increasingly herbicide-resistant weed.

Cabak noted that risk, although he suggested that an early harvest before seeds are viable could do double duty as weed control and cattle feed.

The province suggests that kochia should not be fed for more than 60 days, and that some cattle fed the weed for 45 days have developed liver and kidney problems.

The province is also advising farmers to add water into the equation. Nitrate levels in water can accumulate with feed levels to tip a borderline feed into something dangerous, staff noted during last month’s workshops, adding that producers in that case may start to see higher abortion rates due to those high nitrates.

Clarke noted that his own farm has had problems with nitrate contamination, particularly around calving.

“Newborns are especially sensitive, so that’s not a good time to feed nitrate-contaminated feeds,” he said.

Where’s the protein?

There’s no shortage of protein options for producers who find little alfalfa for sale, although the price of those options may be as equally hard to stomach as the 10-cent-per-pound hay they’d be reaching for otherwise.

Both canola and protein meal are available, although both are expensive and neither lend themselves to self-feeding.

Other farmers may want to reach for dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS), fed with grain every few days.

“It’s dusty… it sticks really good to silage,” Clarke said, noting that the cost, while expensive on paper, is often reasonable for what the farmer is getting in energy and protein.

Farmers who cannot stomach that cost may look at injecting bales with liquid supplements, although uniform injection within the bales can be an issue. The supplement is 32 per cent protein, although Clarke noted that up to two-thirds of that can actually be urea, shown as NPN on the product label.

“If you need to stretch your feed supplies, start earlier versus later,” Cabak also noted. “The earlier you start to bring in additional or different feeds to the ration, it gives you more flexibility and it gives you more options. Don’t wait until spring to start figuring out, I’m short of feed and I need to make changes, what can I bring in?”

About the author


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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