The wet spring and early summer weather has led to many questions regarding hay quality and the factors beef producers should consider when planning their cow wintering programs.
Determining what feed is available on the farm, what quality of feed is needed throughout the winter and early spring, and identifying where the gaps are in meeting the animal needs is a task that needs to be undertaken soon so that the available resources can be utilized to their best advantage.
There is an excellent fact sheet on the OSU Beef Team web page: http://ohioline.osu.edu/as-fact/0001.html. There are a lot of items to consider as we approach the winter feeding period. The cost to buy supplement has certainly changed over the past few years.
The quality of the hay will vary greatly, depending on the time of year, maturity and weather conditions when the hay was made in addition to how it is stored. While we encourage forage testing as the only real way of knowing the feed value of your hay, very few farmers are following through with this practice.
The few dollars that it costs for a forage sample can save you from over-feeding supplement that may not be needed, or help you determine what supplement is needed when each type of hay is fed.
It is especially important if you are buying hay. The relative feed value versus the dollars per ton of hay should be a major item to consider when purchasing hay.
The primary reason for forage testing is that it helps to predict deficiencies in energy and protein for a particular stage of cow production. Cows can’t eat as much poor quality forage and it is lower in net energy for maintenance.
Hay that is more than 70 percent NDF (Neutral Detergent Fiber) will not meet energy needs the last eight weeks of gestation or during early lactation. This causes all kinds of production problems, including loss of body condition score, more dystocia, lower milk production and delayed or difficulty rebreeding.
All of these are magnified in first and second calf heifers. The next reason for forage testing is to help in the decision of what hay to feed and when to feed it. Perhaps this is the simplest and most effective step a producer can take.
Many farms have the first cutting hay stored in the barn first and the later cuttings stored closer to the entrance so you tend to feed the last cut first and the first cut last. It would be much more beneficial if we could match the forage quality with nutritional needs of the cow.
For March/April calving cows, the poorest quality hay should be fed first during the winter. After weaning, the cow’s requirements are the lowest.
When grazing can no longer be accomplished, then feed the poorest quality hay, or start supplementing the late stockpiled forages with some of the poor quality hay to extend the time on stockpiled forages, particularly if the stockpiled forages is fescue that tends to hold its quality well into the winter time.
During the coldest months, which is typically right before calving for the majority of producers, the energy requirements for the cows are on the rise. This is also when cold weather adds an extra stress to the cow’s energy needs to maintain body temperature and to warm the water she drinks.
By matching the best quality hay to the time that the cow has the highest need we can minimize the amount of supplement that is needed to maintain the body condition and health of the animals.
The best hay should be saved for late gestation and early lactation (before spring pasture turn-out).
Sorting the animals into groups based on their nutritional needs is another good way to save supplement costs. If a portion of the herd is in significantly better or worse condition than the majority of the herd, then perhaps they need to be managed separately where their feed can be tailored to their needs without adjusting the supplement for the entire herd.
There is no point in wasting supplement on the entire herd to meet the needs of a few cows. You can save supplement costs by pulling out thin cows and feeding them with your replacement heifers, or culling them from the herd if they are continually high maintenance animals.
One option producers rarely consider to improve the digestibility of hay is chopping. Chopping hay allows the cows to eat 25-30 percent more energy. Costs of chopping hay (equipment, labor, etc.) should be compared to costs of purchasing supplemental energy. If the equipment costs are higher than the cost to purchase additional feed then chopping is probably not an option, but if you can come up with some relatively cost effective equipment then it may be an option to consider.
Addressing any potential problems in the winter feeding areas should be taken care of now while the weather is good instead of waiting until the mud is axle deep.
Do you need to add stone to an access road or heavy use pad? How about the area around your winter source of water? A little time addressing these areas now will save you hours of frustration as the rain comes and the temperatures drop.
In summary, take stock of your available feed. Check out your options for supplements. Sharpen your pencil and evaluate the value of your hay based on forage samples and plan for what will be fed when and what supplements will be needed.
Prepare your winter feeding areas before you need them and decide if all of your animals really have a home on your farm for the winter or if it is time for them to go.
(The author is a district conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.)