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CATTLE TODAY

EVALUATE WINTER FORAGE AND FEEDING TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

By this time of the year producers are well into the winter feeding season. Most decisions have been made, hopefully, months ago. With the uncertainty of the current feed and commodity markets this is not always the case. In many cases, about this time, many cattlemen realize – “I may not have enough hay or forage to carry my herd through,” being unfortunate enough to live in an area affected by drought. Or perhaps your question is “feed prices look like they may go back up, what should I do to protect my cost position?” Regardless of your situation, this month let's take a look at structuring your decision making process a bit with two primary issues in mind – improved performance and improved profits, both of which everyone can stand more of. More producers are realizing that in the current economy, NOT maximizing efficiency is NOT an option. Cows must breed, carry the calf to term and wean the optimal pounds per input cost dollar. Our main goal here is to develop and utilize a system by which the producer can prioritize the tasks at hand by implementing decisions that will improve cattle condition, performance and profitability.

Where Are You Right Now?

The first thing you need to determine is what the status is TODAY of your operation and the components that make up your operation. This may include forage inventory, brood cow body condition, grain or feed prices and available options and so on. The following is a checklist of sorts you might use to help determine some critical factors:

A. Forage Inventory – Quantity and Quality

Take a look at what you have at this point. To begin, how much standing grass (also referred to as stockpiled grass) is available for grazing, if any at this point? Cows will consume dormant grass that is in relatively good condition. Producers run into problems from factors like over-stocking or drought where grass has already been grazed short. This simply means that there will be little or no standing grass available and more of the herd's forage needs will need to come from supplemental forage sources.

Second, how much hay/silage have you produced and is available for feeding? How many round or square bales have your put up? What do the bales weigh on the average? How many tons of silage or baleage? What is the quality of these forage sources (nutrient density). The single best tool for the cattleman to implement in his forage program is forage testing. The ONLY way to determine the nutrient density of your forages is to have it tested by a qualified forage testing laboratory.

Another important factor to consider is HOW you feed your forage sources. Are round bales simply placed out in pastures as is? Are they fed in hay rings or bale feeders? Are they rolled out on the ground? Feeding any type of forage on the ground dramatically increases the amount of loss you experience. Repeated research and experience has shown that losses in round hay bales fed on the ground can exceed 30 percent. Simply placing a hay ring around the bales so cows cannot stand or lay on hay as well as urinate or defecate on it will dramatically reduce losses. The same is true of feeding silage. Feeding in troughs eliminates most of the waste. These savings can quickly pay for the investment you have in feeders and troughs. For example if you are comparing feeding round baled hay on the ground to feeding in a bale ring, consider the two levels of loss on a purely economic basis:

This illustrates that feeding hay on the ground with out a ring or similar feeder can create a loss of $1,000 per 100 head over a given feeding period. A producer can afford to invest in several rings for less than his losses in one year and save those dollars in subsequent years. A qualifier here is that this is based on the cost of producing your own hay and is probably a low number. Depending on your fertilizer and baling costs or if you have to purchase your hay, this number may be considerably higher and thus the cost of losses would be more substantial.

B. Cow Herd Inventory

Your forage and other supplementation needs will be largely determined by your herd inventory. Questions you have to ask include: What is the size of my cow herd, including cows, larger calves (which will be held over), developing heifers and bulls. A very basic rule of thumb is that the average cow will eat about 2.4 percent of her body weight in dry matter per day. In other words, a 1,100 lb. cow needs to consume around 26.5 lbs of dry matter every day. This is easy to calculate if a cow is eating only dry hay. The hay probably averages 85 percent dry matter or better. This means that an 1,l00 lb. cow would need to consume about 31 lbs. of hay per day (26.5 lbs DM/85% or 26.5/.85 = 31 lbs.) Therefore, this is from all sources, standing grass, hay, silage, grain, etc. Other factors which may affect this include temperatures (heat – they eat less, cold – they eat more), moisture conditions (wet, dry, muddy, etc.), stage of production (dry, trimester of pregnancy). Therefore we need to build in a “fudge factor” of 20 percent or so.

A second issue is Body Condition Score (BCS). By the end of summer the producer needs to go through and assess what the average BCS is of his herd. In many cases it is very common for producers to come into the fall and winter of the year with a herd at a lower BCS than would be preferable. Remember a couple of things: it is common and actually physiologically natural for a cow to lose a certain amount of weight as she goes through winter. Let's say one body condition score. For a cow averaging 1,000 to 1,100 lbs., this is about 75 to 100 lbs. of body weight. Therefore, if she comes into this period in better condition, i.e. a BCS of 5 instead of a BCS 4 she will lose down to a BCS that is still workable (i.e. a BCS 4 instead of 3.) Research has shown that a cow will breed optimally at a BCS of 5 to 6. If she enters winter at a 5 and loses down to a 4 it is much simpler to get her back to a 5 than is she comes in at a 4 and loses down to a 3 and subsequently you need to get her back to a 5. The difference here is for her to gain back only 75 to 100 lbs. as opposed to gaining back 150 to 200. Obviously the first option is less expensive.

C. Assessing the Difference

Once you look at forage supplies – what you have produced, and your cow inventory – what you need, you can determine where you stand. Let's look at an example:

• At this time you evaluate your pastures and you determine you have some standing forage but not a lot. This means you are going to have to feed the majority of the cow's dry matter and nutrient needs from hay.

• You have 400 round bales of grass hay weighing an average of 1,200 lbs. each which you will feed in hay rings.

• You have had your hay tested and it is averaging 88 percent dry matter (12 percent moisture) and 8 percent protein.

• You have a spring calving cowherd of 100 cows (avg. weight 1,100 lbs) and 3 bulls (avg. weight 2,000 lbs). You have 35, 18 month-old, pregnant replacement heifers, weighing an average of 900 lbs. You have just weaned your calf crop of which you retained 30 replacement heifers, weighing an average of 500 lbs. and shipped the remaining heifers and steers.

• You determine that the cowherd averages a BCS of about 4 at this point so you need to maintain this weight and build it to a BCS of 5 by March.

• You estimate that your hay feeding season will run from November 15 until March 31 - 136 days.

Based on these facts we know:

1.      Hay Available:

400 bales X 1200 lbs = 480,000 lbs – 10% loss = 432,000 lbs. available for feeding

2.      Daily Herd Needs

To begin, as things stand, you see that you are short of hay. You do know, however that you will need to feed a supplement of some type. For simplicity sake let's say to the cows you will feed an average of 3.5 lbs of a 20 percent range cube, the bulls and average of 5 lbs. of this cube. The larger heifers 8 lbs of a 14 percent grain mix and to the younger heifers 5 lbs. of a 16 percent grain mix. This will save you about 795 lbs. of hay per day or 108,120 lbs over the feeding period reducing your hay requirement to 493,272.00 lbs. Your deficit is now only 61,272 lbs. or about 56 bales. You have the option of purchasing this additional hay now, which is probably the smart thing to do as opposed to later in the winter when supplies could get short or waiting until later in the year to see what type of winter you have and taking the chance you will not need more and if you do having to pay more for it.

3. Planning Supplementation

As noted you will need a protein or grain supplement (possibly cubes, liquids, blocks, etc. – whatever best suits your operation) as well as heifer or developing cattle mixes. The exact formulations of these will depend on forage nutrient availability and that's a subject for another article. Based on the numbers above you will need about 50,000 lbs. of cubes for the bulls and cows, 38,000 lbs. of a grain mix for the pregnant heifers and 20,400 lbs. of a grain mix for the yearling heifers. Always compare several feed sources to get comparison pricing. Look at what service they will offer, will they deliver, what are credit terms, will they contract, etc. In a volatile grain market such what currently exists, it is a good idea to contract at least 50 percent of your needs through the feeding season that way you have your self protected in case the market moves up or if it moves down. Compare pricing in terms of cost per unit of protein and/or per unit of energy. Finally, ALWAYS utilize a high quality free-choice mineral, based on your forage analysis that can be purchased economically and that is proven to be palatable and will hold up in a mineral feeder in the elements (i.e. won't set up and won't blow away). Remember however that cheap and quality do not necessarily go together. Carefully evaluate the options that you have

Conclusions

Remember that in a well manage cow operation, performance and profitability is based on planning. Always adhere to the 5 P's Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. You've been provided a fairly simple outline of where to start at this time of the year. Subsequently you can implement more factors from here as well as those issues related to your operation. Momma always told you to do your homework. It doesn't stop here.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at 903-885-7992 or by e-mail at sblez@peoplescom.net.

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