Sampling forages helps livestock farmers know what they’re feeding

Farm and Dairy file photo.

What a difference a year makes — or does it? We can certainly say this past year has had its challenges. The quality of forages made in 2020, however, was much better for most compared to the previous two years.

Weather conditions were more favorable, especially for first cutting. The late frost in May set our forages back and for many first cutting forage yields were extremely low. Second, third and fourth cuttings were better, but overall hay supplies are tight again for some.


Again in 2020, extension educators in 10 counties have collected forage samples from across the state. Chart 1 is data collected in 2019. I know we would like to forget the condition of forages in 2019, but I have included it for comparison to forage quality in Chart 2, for 2020.

To clarify, most of these samples are not from the same producer or the same fields. This demonstration is to make a simple comparison of the overall quality of random forage samples.grazing chart 1

grazing chart 2


Percent total digestible nutrients is a measure of the amount of energy in the feed. Basically, this equates to the number of calories. Percent protein shown as the yellow horizontal line is a measure of the protein that is available to the animal for maintaining muscle and body systems. It is also very important for development of the calf she is carrying.

In both charts, the vertical blue bars represent first cutting hay samples while the vertical orange bars represent second cutting. For a 1,200-pound cow, a total digestible nutrient level of 60% is needed for a cow in peak lactation, 54% at calving and 49% for the last trimester. The corresponding protein levels for each of these times would be 8%, 10% and 11%, respectively.


Looking at the charts you will notice that in 2019 we certainly had some issues with meeting cattle total digestible nutrient requirements with first cutting hay. But many would have been adequate for the last trimester and at calving.

In 2020 samples tended to be much better and would have met their nutritional needs for most. But for both years, some samples still fall short of having high enough levels of energy or protein for the three stages of pregnancy in this example.

It is also notable that higher total digestible nutrient levels do not translate into higher protein levels regardless of what time of year the forage was harvested.

It is extremely beneficial for producers to collect forage samples. Regardless of what species of livestock you have, knowing what the quality of forage you are feeding is well worth the costs of the sample.


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