As feed supplies become more scarce, ranchers may want to take inventory of what feed resources they have available, and lock down any additional supplies they may need. University of Nebraska Beef Specialist Rick Rasby said that everyday the drought continues, the supply of available feed resources diminishes, and the price goes up because of the short supply. Rasby urges producers to take inventory of both the quality and quantity of homegrown feed they have available, and purchase any additional supplies they may need to get through the winter months now.
Because of the drought, Rasby urges producers to test any forages they plan to feed to cattle that have been grown under drought conditions. “Forages harvested this year may be quite different in protein and energy compared to years past, even if they are off the same field,” he explained. It is especially important to test all annual forages, types of hay, and cornstalks for nitrates. “When the feed test comes back from the lab, make sure you understand how they measured the nitrates, look at what the parts per million were, and what range they determined is safe and what isn’t,” he said.
In most cases, Rasby said the highest level of nitrates will be at the base of the stalk, so he encourages producers harvesting any type of annual forage to set the swather or combine head at least eight inches above the ground. If the forages have been harvested early, and regrowth occurs, nitrates can redevelop in the newly growing plants, so it is still important to watch for them, he said.
Since mixing wet distillers grain with a low quality forage may not be a viable option for everyone, Rasby said producers may want to consider droughted out corn as an alternative. “Make sure and talk with your crop insurance agent before you do anything so it doesn’t affect your payment,” he said.
Dealing with droughted out corn
Droughted out corn that is located too far away to be put up as silage can be harvested for hay, Rasby said, but producers will need to make sure it is dried down properly. “When you make it into hay, you still need to make good hay. Get it dried down properly so it doesn’t burn or heat up in the bale,” he warned, recommending producers crimp the hay.
Once the corn is baled, Rasby recommends taking samples to test for protein, energy, moisture, and most importantly, nitrates. “Once again, I would recommend setting the swather head higher to avoid the bottom part of the stalk, and testing the bale once it is put up,” he said.
Droughted out corn can also be green chopped, if it is fed on a daily basis. “I would feed it as soon as I chop it, preferably in a morning,” Rasby said. “If it is placed in a pile, it will heat up and the nitrates will change to nitrites, which are 10 times more toxic to cattle,” he said.
Rasby said the best method of utilizing droughted out corn is making it into silage. The silage should be 35 percent dry matter and 65 percent moisture, which will make the silage pack well and ferment properly. “If it is too wet, it will seep, and if it is too dry, it will be fluffy and won’t pack well,” he explained. Rasby said producers can still choose to set the chopper head up eight inches, but when silage ferments it typically reduces nitrates 30-60 percent. Producers should still test the silage for protein, TDN, moisture and nitrates when they open up the pile, so they know what they are feeding.
Can you graze it?
Although many producers take advantage of grazing cornstalks during the winter months, they could also graze droughted cornfields now, if they have time to properly manage the fields. “The main concern is the nitrates,” the beef specialist explained. “Also, if there is corn on those stalks and the ear is filled, they should be concerned about the cattle developing acidosis or foundering,” he said.
If producers are considering grazing a droughted out cornfield, Rasby urges them to crossfence the field with electric fence to provide only enough grazing for a few days at a time, and to prevent trampling. They will also want to make sure the cattle are full before they allow them to graze the cornfield, and to avoid forcing the cattle to eat the base of the stalks.
Ammoniating low quality forages
If producers plan to feed low quality forages, they may want to consider ammoniating the forages to improve digestibility. Products like wheat or oat straw and cornstalk bales are considered low quality forages that cattle will quit eating when they can’t pack any more into their rumen. “Ammoniation can increase digestion about 10 percent, and intake 15-20 percent,” Rasby said.
The idea of ammoniation is to pile the bales, leaving three inches between each pyramid so the anyhydrous can soak around the bale, and cover them with heavy plastic. The plastic is sealed by placing dirt over the bottom of the plastic to hold it down around the bales. A pipe is put in to pump anhydrous ammonia into the bales at the rate of three percent of the total weight of the bales.
Rasby said the trick of ammoniating the bales is to turn the valve on slow and cover any tears in the plastic with duct tape. He cautions against turning the valve on too fast because the plastic will expand and could blow a hole through the plastic. With the warmer weather, Rasby said the pile will need to be sealed around seven to 10 days. He recommends uncovering the pile before feeding it to allow the anhydrous smell to dissipate.