Harvesting quality forage
As calving has finished for the majority of cow-calf producers and the pairs are out to grass, attention is turning to harvesting forage for this coming winter. Because input costs have increased considerably for most all products including cattle supplements and feed grains, it is important to harvest high quality forage to aid in minimizing purchased feed. At times we tend to want to maximize yield of hay per acre when actually we need to think in terms of optimal yield of protein and energy or beef produced per acre. In other words, strive to put up high quality hay with adequate yeild.
Most will be harvesting forage as hay but a few will be harvesting haylage and storing in silos or perhaps bags. If equipment is available for storing and feeding haylage, it usually will allow for the harvesting of the highest quality feed, especially first cutting alfalfa that is often rained on in areas with plentiful spring rain.
The largest factor that will influence the quality of hay, both protein and energy plus vitamins and minerals, is the stage of maturity when cut. Other factors such as dryness or leaf loss when baling, especially leafy legumes, moisture in the bale and how it is stored, and amount of rain that may fall on the crop after cutting, all will influence quality. But if harvested in advanced maturity no matter how well it is harvested and how bright and green it is, it will still be relatively poor quality feed.
If alfalfa is cut when the first bloom starts to appear, the protein will often exceed 20 percent and TDN 60 percent or greater, but if left until the majority is in bloom, protein will drop below 16 percent and TDN will be around 55 percent. Nutrient content of summer annual forages such as sorghum sudans or forage millets will even be more dramatic. Protein may range from 14-16 percent if harvested when heads start to emerge and 6-7 percent if harvested when seeds have been produced. Yes, dry tons per acre will increase but digestible nutrients by the cow or beef per acre will usually decrease if cut after most seed heads emerge.
What does hay quality mean in value? Lets assume a pound of protein will be valued at $.40 per pound and a pound of TDN at $.14 per pound and we are comparing the value of two different hays. One hay stock has 16 percent protein and 63 percent TDN while another stack has 10 percent protein and 55 percent TDN. The feeding value of these two stacks would be approximately $59 different if we use the cost of nutrients above. That will sound like too great of difference for many and certainly the current market for hay will usually not reflect this large of a difference, but as stated previously, costs of inputs have increased dramatically in the past couple of years.
The reason for the large difference in value is that a ton of the lower quality hay will have 200 pounds of protein and 1,100 pounds of TDN while the higher quality hay will have 320 pounds of protein and 1,260 pounds of TDN. These differences multiplied by the value per ton will show in excess of $59 difference in value. If we assume a base value of $90/ton of hay and assume we wanted to wait to cut in order to gain a higher yield of hay per acre, it would need to yield about 66 percent more to offset the lower value of the hay. If the higher quality hay yielded two tons/acre the lower quality hay would need to be about three tons per acre.
Yes, as feed costs have increased the hay value for the cattle have changed also.
This also points out how important it is to properly sample and analyze all forage in order to balance rations as accurately as possible and to truly evaluate value of forages. We are into an era when it is important to sharpen our pencil and calculate input costs in order to stay competitive in the cattle business. Have a good and safe hay season.