MT. VERNON, Mo. — Cold January weather often brings one common complaint from cattle owners: “Why are my cattle not eating the hay that is out for them?”
“I’m not always sure I can pinpoint the exact reason in each situation but it’s a question I’m often asked,” said Eldon Cole, livestock specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
There are several possible reasons cows turn up their noses to the hay offered them. One is that the hay fed may have been harvested in a mature stage of growth when the neutral detergent fiber (NDF) level was high.
Cattle typically only consume a given amount of NDF daily. Levels of NDF in the upper 60s and 70 percent range could limit total dry matter intake.
“The cattle may be accustomed to higher quality forage that’s more palatable. Even stockpiled fescue in January is more palatable than much of the hay put up each year,” said Cole.
Another factor is that hay stored outside is consumed in lesser amounts than comparable barn-stored hay. Cole says NDF could be a factor as it may increase in percentage in outside storage, especially if high amounts of rain or snow fall on it.
After all, there was lots of rain in 2013 in southwest Missouri after hay harvest.
“A fourth reason is that research shows cattle eat less fescue hay that has high amounts of the toxin, ergovaline in it. The toxin level does lessen significantly during storage. This may explain why farmers often say their cattle eat two-year old fescue hay better than one-year old hay,” said Cole. “Similarly, a fungal condition in red clover called, black patch causes cattle to refuse to eat the hay.”
According to Cole, improving intake of unpalatable hay is challenging. There are protein and energy supplements that may be applied to the hay to increase intake.
“Just remember, even if cattle eat the low quality hay, the nutrient level of the hay remains low. If intake is increased enough the total pounds of the energy and protein, could offset the poor digestibility,” said Cole.
In contrast to the cattle not eating hay, Cole says another man contacted him who said his cattle loved some of his hay but it was discolored and smelled a bit like tobacco.
“He admitted it was damp at baling and did heat up some. Even though his cattle consume the hay readily, the heating could have resulted in the Maillard reaction which causes some of the protein to be indigestible,” said Cole.
As a result, Cole suggested having the hay tested along with a protein test. The investment can reveal if his 10 percent-plus protein hay is all available or if he needs to buy protein for certain classes of cattle.
“Testing forages costs a little, takes time and a special hay testing tool. However, it’s the most objective and accurate way to trouble-shoot problems with cattle and forages. Without that information you could be over or under supplementing your cattle,” said Cole.