Ivan Rush: Considering forages for this winter
Even though most of the northern high plains was blessed with spring rains that produced ample amounts of forage, several factors have developed that may change our winter feed resources.
The total lack of moisture in many areas in July, August and September didn’t allow forages later growth.
Another factor, perhaps the largest, is the severe drought in the southwest U.S. It has caused a tremendous movement of hay from this region into the drought area. That, coupled with large numbers of cows moving to this area where forage is abundant, may change winter feeding strategies.
As a result, lower-quality feeds are being baled, especially wheat straw. Other harvested feeds that have lower feed values include sudan and millet; more mature or weedy hay may be more available and economical when compared to alfalfa. In most cases, if winter grazing is available either as winter range or corn stalks, it is usually the most economical way to winter cows, even with some protein supplement, at least up to calving.
The straws and lower quality hays can certainly fit well into cattle diets, especially dry cow rations, if purchased or produced at a lower cost than alfalfa and blended with good high-energy feeds. Those that have access to wet distillers grains can make an excellent ration by blending it with low-quality forages.
Questions often arise as to the value of low-quality feeds. This is difficult to answer, especially when the actual nutrient analysis is not known. Sorghum-sudan forages are extremely variable in nutrient content, depending on the stage it was harvested and, to some extent, harvesting conditions. If it was mature with seeds well developed when harvested, it may test 5-6 percent protein and 50 percent or less in TDN; this is slightly better than wheat straw. In contrast, if harvested when in the boot stage, protein may likely be 13-16 percent with 60 percent TDN; this is close to the same level as average alfalfa hay.
In many cases, the protein of summer annual forages may be the same as corn silage (7-9 percent crude protein on dry basis), but much lower in TDN or energy. Good corn silage will have a TDN content of 70 percent compared to 55 percent for summer annual forages, or about 25 percent less energy. To accurately assess comparative values, a sample should be taken and a nutrient analysis obtained which includes nitrate content on suspect forages such as sudan, millet and oats. If nitrate levels are safe, summer annual forages are often valued at 60-80 percent of the value of average to good quality alfalfa hay.
Other forages such as corn stalk hay, bean hay or straw (dry edible bean and soybean), wheat straw and millet straw offer relatively low cost feed alternatives. In general, these feeds can be good ration fillers. If ground and mixed with other higher quality feedstuffs, they can contribute some nutrients, but for the most part are valued relatively low. This is especially true when feed grains such as corn byproducts (distillers grain) may be more economical sources of nutrients than forages.
Unique this year is the relative value of energy and protein from various feedstuffs, especially alfalfa and corn. In some cases good quality alfalfa is selling for $200 per ton. This casts a different light on alfalfa this year.
For years I made could make the statement that alfalfa would be the cheapest source of protein, often similar to the value of energy coming from corn. This year, when the cost of protein and TDN is calculated for $200 per ton alfalfa, testing 19 percent protein and 60 percent TDN, it costs $0.53 per pound of protein and $0.17 per pound of TDN. Compare that to dry distillers grain, or a 30 percent protein cake, that has 85 percent TDN and costs $300 per ton. It pencils out to $0.50 per pound for protein and $0.18 per pound for TDN. For the first time that I can remember alfalfa may not be the cheapest source of protein, especially when comparing the cost of feeding and potential waste.
Now that corn has come back down closer to $6 per bushel (who knows what it will do in the future), it becomes more competitive on an energy basis. If corn costs $6 per bushel and has 85 percent TDN, the TDN would cost $0.13 per pound. When corn was $8 per bushel, it was actually about equal for the cost of TDN compared to $200 per ton alfalfa hay. This is the first time in many years that wheat has become competitive to corn in some area feedlot diets.
It seems nutritionists are a broken repetitive record when it comes to concentrating on feed cost. Even though there are relatively good markets for cattle, costs continue to be a producer’s biggest challenge.
Many cost estimates show that annual cow costs are well over $700 per cow, per year, when all costs are accounted for. I suspect it will reach $800 this year in some herds where all costs, including ownership costs, are considered. A troubling thought – but one we must deal with – is that feed costs account for a very large share of the annual cow cost. We must look at every opportunity to keep feed costs down while maintaining good production, especially reproduction.