Feeding beef cows hay during winter months can tear up farm budget book

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COSHOCTON, Ohio – Beef cattle farmers know all too well that winter feeding takes a big bite out of the ruminants’ maintenance budget.

And it’s the tradition, the mindset that beef cows should be fed hay in the winter, that gnaws farthest into the farm budget book.

But there is good news: Alternative feeding methods can reduce cost without affecting productivity, and August is the time to start thinking about them.

“It seems that raising cattle and baling hay go hand in hand. Producers make hay off the pasture in the spring to feed during winter,” said Steven Loerch, a researcher with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, during a presentation at the Agricultural Systems and the Environment field day in early July.

“Producers always assume they have to bale and feed hay.”

But they don’t.

Feed differently. During the past three winters, Loerch tested three feeding systems, comparing their cost and effect on the growth and reproduction of cows.

Trials used round-baled grass hay, whole corn and stockpiled pasture, Loerch said.

“Cows on all three wintering systems gained about the same weight from October to mid-February and maintained similar body-condition scores. The calves’ weight at birth and during the summer, as well as conception rates, were also very similar.”

Price factor. Very similar, indeed. Except for the price.

Hay is the most commonly used winter feed for beef cattle, but it’s also the most expensive.

Each cow requires a daily intake of 40 pounds of round-baled hay, which amounts to $1.61 if pricing hay at $80 per ton.

At $2 per bushel, or $71 per ton, corn is not only cheaper than hay, but it also boasts a much higher energy value.

According to Loerch’s research, a daily diet consisting of 12 pounds of corn, 4 pounds of hay and 2 pounds of a protein and mineral supplement provides the same number of calories as 40 pounds of hay – at a cost of only 84 cents per cow per day.

“Corn grain is the least expensive harvested source of digestible energy per unit available to producers in Ohio,” Loerch explained.

“Because hay only has about half the energy value as corn grain, the break-even price for hay on an energy basis would be approximately $40 a ton. So, unless you can get hay for $40 a ton or less, your most economical choice is corn.”

Finding hay at that price is rare in Ohio, according to Loerch, who also noted that most farmers can’t even produce hay that inexpensively. When factoring in the cost of land, feeding, fertilizer, labor and depreciation of equipment, hay costs roughly $70 per ton to produce.

The grain route. Whole-shelled – not ground – corn is recommended for the mixed diet feeding method. Previous Ohio State research shows that whole corn works better when the daily intake of hay per cow is limited to five pounds or less.

Since it takes time for the rumen to break the seed coat, whole corn delays the release of starch and spreads fermentation through the course of the entire day, providing energy so the animals only need to be fed once a day.

“If corn is used to provide most of the energy, then the intake has to be restricted so the cows don’t get fat,” Loerch pointed out.

“It takes four or five days for the animals to get used to the new diet and to not having food available all through the day. It is important to keep the cows in a securely fenced area and make sure that bunk space is adequate so that all of them get their share of food.”

Feeding whole corn also helps cattle eat consistently and not go off feed. During the winter months, whole corn can also be fed in bunks or on the ground and remains easy for cattle to pick up, he said.

Still need forage. Cattle on this corn-based nutrition program also need to be fed a small amount of hay, since forage is essential to maintaining a healthy rumen.

Also necessary is a supplement containing ground corn, soybean meal, urea, limestone, dicalcium phosphate, and other minerals and vitamins.

Loerch also tested the profitability of stockpiled pasture as a winter feeding system.

“We had 31 cows grazing 34 acres of stockpiled orchard grass,” Loerch said.

The pastures were fertilized with ammonium nitrate Aug. 1 and set aside until the trial began in late October. Forage was depleted by mid-February, after which the cows were put on the corn-based diet. They were also fed corn during days of snow cover, approximately 14 days each winter.

“If the snow gets too deep, the cows will need supplemental feed,” he said.

In his research, Loerch used limited hand feeding of corn along fence rows at the rate of 10-12 pounds per head per day, he said.

Cows on pasture. According to Loerch, it costs about 43 cents per day to maintain a cow on pasture.

“The value of pasture is about $53 per acre,” Loerch said. “If you have other uses for your pasture that will generate more money than that, then stockpiling forage is not the best option. Otherwise, it’s the cheapest winter feeding method available.”

But there are drawbacks to winter pasture feeding.

“With corn feeding, the cows come up every time they’re fed, the know you’re responsible for their feed,” Loerch said. “In a pasture system, it’s more difficult to handle them, they’re scattered and don’t know to come to you for feed.”

Preparing pasture. Early August is the time to set aside acreage if you intend to stockpile winter pasture.

Pasture land should also be fertilized, Loerch said, and by November or December, the land will be ready to support a herd.

In research trials, 30 cows were grazed on 5-acre paddocks for 17 days. The timing was an attempt to mimic what resources producers would be willing to spend, Loerch said.

“The more frequently [the cows] are moved, the better use you’ll make of the land. Just don’t turn a whole herd loose on the whole area. Strip graze,” he said.

Loerch also noted the paddocks could have support twice as many cattle if they were rotated daily.

For next year. However, for this year, the feeding option might not be feasible.

“Right now we’re burning up, and some are feeding hay now. They’ll need more in the winter, so the price will go up. It’s hard to set aside acreage with these conditions,” he said.

“Find the cheapest source of calories, and feed those sources of feed,” Loerch said.

“Think outside the box. You’re not locked into feeding hay,” he said.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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