Steps to stretch limited hay supplies

All options must be closely evaluated while keeping an eye on the bottom line to ensure carrying animals through winter is realistic

Harvest and transport challenges have left many livestock producers facing a shortage of hay.

That has some producers worrying they do not have enough forage on hand at this time to meet winter feed needs.

“There are numerous strategies that can be used to help stretch limited forage supplies,” said Janna Block, extension livestock systems specialist at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center. “However, the first step is to get a good estimate of what is currently available.”

She recommended producers take inventory of all forages, which includes bale weights and number of bales for each lot of hay. A lot is defined as the same species grown on the same field and harvested within a 48-hour period. Storage losses should be included by using estimates of 20 per cent for hay stored outside and seven per cent for hay stored inside.

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The next step is to determine the number of livestock in each production group (mature cows, bulls, replacement heifers, etc.) and estimate the number of feeding days. In general, dry matter intake needs can be estimated at 2.5 per cent of body weight.

“This estimate can be refined further with known forage quality, but this is a good place to start,” Block said.

Feeding waste also should be included in calculations for feed needs. Waste can vary significantly, depending on how forage is delivered to the herd, but rolling out bales on pasture typically results in the highest waste due to trampling, overconsumption and contamination from urine and feces. Research indicates that losses for this feeding strategy may range from 25 per cent to 45 per cent.

Assume that a 200-cow operation requires 553 tons of hay on an as-fed basis for a 150-day feeding period. If hay is valued at $80 per ton, monetary losses from hay waste easily could approach $20,000. That does not include additional hay or supplement that would have to be provided due to waste to meet livestock needs.

“When substantial amounts of forages must be fed to livestock on a daily basis, it is a good idea to use some type of barrier to reduce waste,” Block said. “These could include hay feeders, panel feeders, bunks, tire feeders or some other type of barrier. Grinding and/or processing forage also can reduce waste and increase utilization by livestock; however, increased costs are a factor that must be considered.

“An understanding of cattle nutrient requirements and nutrients supplied by forage is critical to use hay supplies in a cost-effective and efficient manner,” Block noted. “Proper sampling and laboratory analysis of forages are important for any given year and become even more so with extreme weather conditions like the ones experienced this year.”

Results of a forage analysis can be used to allocate certain lots of hay to production groups and determine when or if supplementation will be necessary.

If possible, producers should sort and feed livestock by production groups to allow for the best use of forages with varying nutrient concentrations.

For example, in general, lower-quality forages (minimum of 50 per cent total digestible nutrients, or TDN, and seven per cent crude protein, or CP) can be fed to dry, mature beef cows in mid-gestation. Moderate-quality forages (55 to 58 per cent TDN and eight to nine per cent CP) can be used to meet cow requirements during late gestation.

The highest-quality forages (59 to 65 per cent TDN and 10 to 13 per cent CP) should be reserved for first-calf heifers throughout pregnancy, growing calves and mature cows during early lactation.

“It is important to remember that factors such as breed, cow body condition, milk production, age and environment will influence requirements,” Block said. “Computerized ration balancing is typically necessary to determine specific needs for an individual group of animals.”

Also if possible, cows should be sorted and fed based on nutrient requirements (that is, first- and second-calf heifers, old cows, mature cows, etc.) to use forages most efficiently. In addition, producers should keep an eye on body condition scores (BCS) of the cow herd to evaluate the effectiveness of winter feeding programs. Mature cows should be fed to calve at a BCS of five, with first-calf heifers fed to achieve a BCS of six to allow for increased nutrient requirements for growth.

Research has shown a strong relationship between BCS at calving and subsequent reproductive performance. Cows in better condition also are better able to withstand extreme weather conditions. Therefore, achieving and then maintaining desired condition scores now will allow cows to manage colder temperatures without sacrificing condition. Feeding groups may need to be re-evaluated throughout the winter so that lactating, thin and old cows with increased requirements can be fed separately.

“When hay supplies are extremely limited, producers could consider developing a limit-fed ration that contains minimal amounts of forage and greater levels of nutrient-dense feeds such as corn silage, grain and/or byproducts,” Block said. “These alternative feeds will be in high demand this winter across the state, so it is important to determine feed needs as soon as possible to ensure an adequate supply.”

When comparing feed options, include all transportation, storage, waste and feeding expenses. Depending on facilities, available feed resources, costs and management strategies, limit feeding can be implemented with cows on the ranch or at a commercial lot.

In addition to looking into alternative feeds, considering whether to use ionophores to stretch feed resources this winter might be worthwhile. Ionophores are feed additives that alter rumen microbial populations to increase efficiency of energy use.

These products are inexpensive and can be mixed into dry or liquid commercial feeds or mineral mixtures. Research has shown that cows can maintain body condition while consuming seven to 10 per cent less hay when fed an ionophore.

“Winter feeding represents a significant portion of input costs and is even more challenging when facing current market conditions,” Block said. “All options must be closely evaluated while keeping an eye on the bottom line to ensure that carrying animals through the winter is feasible. Culling strategies should be developed and producers should be prepared to reduce livestock inventory if necessary.”

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