Extension column: Plan ahead for winter feeding
August 19, 2013
It seems odd to bring up winter feeding in early August, but it will be upon us before we know it. I think the growing conditions this year have been unique enough to make it worth talking about some upcoming feed issues.
Most producers are in the winding down phase of hay production this year. There may be a lot of bales that still need to be hauled home, but most folks have a pretty good sense how much hay they have produced. Its time to take inventory of how much hay is available relative to needs for the cattle you plan on taking into the winter. There will be a lot of variation in what folks have. Many people brought very little carryover hay forward from last year. Between poor production last year and the late spring, carryover hay inventories have been very thin. Weather and its effect on the amount of hay produced this year has also been highly variable. Some folks have seen good rains, while others have been lacking. Considering that most hay ground came into this year very drought-stressed, ability to produce hay was somewhat limited even for those with good rains.
Besides drought stress and highly variable precipitation affecting the amount of hay produced, it will also have had an affect on feed quality. If there ever was a year for hay testing, this is it. This year's hay nutrient content may be far different than what is typically produced on a given field. That will be unknown until the hay is sampled and tested. A feed test will be relatively inexpensive compared to the effect on cow performance if the hay doesn't have the quality to support a cow's nutrient requirements.
Besides nutrients, some hay can also have unexpected levels of toxins, particularly nitrates. Most annual forages, especially oat hay, can contain toxic levels of nitrates. We have seen alarmingly high levels of nitrate in many tests of oat hay this year. Despite the fact that many areas have seen partial recovery from drought, growing conditions have been stressful enough to cause accumulation of high levels of nitrates.
Once a feed inventory is completed, a person can determine what feedstuffs need to be purchased. Obviously, if adequate hay was produced to meet the needs of the herd and feed testing indicates that it has nutrient content to meet or exceed the requirement of the livestock, then no additional feed needs to be purchased. However, if a producer is short of hay, then they will need to buy additional hay or some other substitute feedstuff. Substitute feeds can range from silage to by-products such as soyhulls to limit-fed, concentrate-based diets.
Alternatively, if nutrient content is less than needed, then supplemental feeds to overcome nutrient deficiencies will need to be purchased. For example, if hay is low in protein content, then a high-protein range cake, distiller's grains, or some other high-protein feed will need to be considered as a supplement.
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The sooner this inventory of hay quantity and quality is completed, the better. Many viable feedstuffs, such as distiller's grains, are at their lowest price during summer and price goes up as fall and winter approaches. Availability may also become limiting as time goes on.
Planning now can lead to reduced feed costs and headaches this coming winter.