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

Each year brings its own set of challenges. Challenges that the cattleman/cattlewoman must overcome in an effort to remain profitable or at the very least to simply hold his/her own. Every year we encounter areas of the country that face some degree of drought or other environmental challenge which creates a shortage of forages (pasture or stored forages). In some cases this is very widespread which leads to dramatic increases in the cost of purchased hays and roughages. In other cases it is more local, affecting producers only in very specific locations.

This spring has produced a seemingly different set of problems through the states east of the rockies with the severe thunderstorms and the violent tornadic activity which has affected many cities, towns and communities. Most recently we have seen the devastating effects on Joplin, Mo. and Tuscaloosa, Ala. to name only a few of the most prominent. These tragic weather events affect not only the towns and cities but also the rural areas. Farms and ranches are also affected by these storms and commonly have extensive damage, not only to buildings and equipment, but to crops and livestock as well. This can very well affect the food supply locally and beyond. So remember that when we consider forage supplies, or the lack thereof, we not only consider low rainfall situations but many other environmental problems. Planning for these situation each year well in advance is becoming increasingly critical.

A complicating factor here are the other issues we face, many of which are economic. With fuel, fertilizer and feed costs as high (many at historical levels) the challenge of managing these exceptional costs, plus low forage situations, can create what looks like an almost unmanageable situation.

What causes these situations and what do we do about it? First, a lot of factors contribute to circumstances like these. One of the most prominent causes in this case is reflective of the drought conditions we see in many areas, not just this year but over the last several years. This has resulted in reduced forage production and even in terms of less productive pastures and hay meadows due to reduced plant populations. Secondly, we have the last year or two and could again this year, actually have winter weather conditions in the Southern and Southeastern United States. This has come as quite a shock to many producers who have unwittingly become accustomed to mild winters where hay consumption was not very aggressive and a lot of roughage was provided by volunteer winter forages. We always run into the possibility that this year even planted winter pastures which would otherwise provide a significant roughage base could be suppressed by the cold weather. They may certainly be affected by the continued dry conditions in certain areas. Third, with stronger cattle markets, more cattle are going on feed and we are seeing a trend to place cattle on feed at somewhat lighter weights. We may very well see a greater number of cattle being placed on growing rations due to reduced forage availabilities in pasture environments. In many cases this pulls heavily on roughage supplies. All this goes to say that many factors exist that have created these tight roughage supplies. Let's take some time here to review possibilities that might exist to help us through the “forage crunch.”

Consider the Alternatives

Let's take a moment to review your options when forage supplies become short.

1) Purchasing Hay

Although a lot of hay is shipped from one part of the country to another in most instances, when the motivation is to meet a shortage in a specific region of the country a couple of factors come into play. One, the cost will be quite a bit higher than if you were able to produce it locally. This is due to the added freight cost (this is considerable given current fuel prices) plus the profit margin that the seller adds on. This is not wrong, it's just a fact of life. Secondly, the quality of the forage shipped in is often not the best. While both of these situations can create circumstances where the buyer is taken advantage of, that's not always the case and as long as the buyer has some familiarity with buying hay, he can avoid becoming involved in a bad deal.

To begin, it is always preferential to buy hay by the ton and not by the bale or by the roll. There is entirely too much variability from one bale or roll to the next. Hay needs to be bought by weight (normally dollars per ton) delivered to your location. When you consider that a round bale of hay could vary well over 500 lbs or more per bale, that's a huge difference. Second, know what type of hay you are buying. Is it bermudagrass, ryegrass, sorghum-sudan grass, alfalfa, etc. Make sure the seller guarantees the hay to be weed free or at least very low in weed contamination. Have the seller provide a hay test on the load he is delivering - not on the overall lot of hay he may be pulling from. Once again, there is a lot of variability in nutrient density as well. Compare your cost based on units of protein and/or relative feed value (RFV). Relative feed value is a calculated index based on fiber components in the forage. The higher the RFV the better the digestibility of the forage and the more nutrients the animal can extract. Finally, if the hay received is not what you were promised/guaranteed, do not be afraid to refuse the load or negotiate a better price.

Keep in mind that hay is a nutrient source. The better quality the hay you purchase is, i.e. better nutrient values, the less supplementation you have to provide to meet the requirements of your herd of cattle. In a cow/calf operation, reproductive performance is largely dependent on nutrition. If the proper nutrient levels are not provided then performance will not be what it should be. This may result in depressed calf weights, higher dystocia (birth of dead calves), poor rebreeding, lowered weaning weights, etc. Producing or buying the best quality hay, along with properly balanced supplementation is the key to a successful nutritional program.

2) Other Roughage Sources

On several occasions we have examined alternative feed and forage sources that can be used in feeding of cattle. In some situations these are effective to help us reduce costs. In other situations it becomes a matter of finding SOMETHING that can provide for these nutrient needs.

In situations when hay or pastures are short, similar to when we encounter drought conditions a number of alternatives exist to provide the necessary nutrients. Something that the producer must consider is that it is not mandatory that you feed hay to a cow. Hay and grass are the normal base sources of nutrients in the cow's diet primarily because her digestive system is designed to handle large amounts of fiber based material from which required nutrients are extracted. In most cases, pasture and possibly hay sources are the least expensive sources of these nutrients. Another role of roughages in the cow's diet, especially in colder weather situations, is to provide warmth. When a cow consumes roughage, the bacterial action in the rumen breaks down the fiber which produces heat and a lot of it. This helps the cow stay warm. In many cases I'll recommend for a producer to feed slightly lower quality roughages during cold periods to increase the amount of microbial activity which must be generated to breakdown the plant material, thereby increasing heat production.

So what can we use as a roughage source when hay or conventional roughages are short? Table 1 provides some examples.

Roughage sources such as corn and milo stalks, peanut hay and soybean stubble can be purchased in a baled form. The other products such as gin trash, cottonseed and peanut hulls are often delivered in loose, bulk form but in some situations can be found in a pelleted form which makes handling quite a bit easier although pelleting does reduce some of the effective roughage value.

You will notice with these roughages that in general they are low in protein and energy so it is a basic assumption that some additional protein and energy supplementation will be necessary. Typically three to five pounds per head per day of processed corn or milo or another grain source may be used to meet energy needs. Additionally, it is necessary to provide protein as well. Other feed ingredients such as corn gluten feed or whole cottonseed can be used to satisfy both protein and energy needs to a certain degree. Some products such as peanut hulls are also very low in digestibility. Even though they can be analyzed for specific nutrient values in the lab, their actual value to the animal is lower given low overall digestibility of the product.

Regardless of what roughage source you decide to use, loads need to be tested regularly to ascertain nutrient content. Products must be compared based on economics. In many cases a really “cheap” feed can cost you much more in the long run.

3) Other Management Options

In some situations it may become an issue of making do with what you have. If this is the case several options or combinations of options can be used:

a) This may be the perfect opportunity to cull some of those individuals you have had questions about, if they have not bred back, if the calves they wean are not particularly productive, etc. These less than productive individuals need to be moved out of your herd, especially when resources are tight and need to be used for those that will produce a profit.

b) Another option to consider is early weaning. We have evaluated this program before and in certain circumstances is an effective management tool to reduce the nutrient demand by cows which would otherwise be nursing larger calves.

c) A third option may be to move the entire herd to an area where forages and pasture is available. This will depend on the economics when you compare buying and bringing in feed and forage as compared to taking the cattle to another location. Factors such as stress effects, potential injury to the animal and so on have to be evaluated for the costs. Unfortunately transportation costs are high right now due to fuel costs and this option must be considered carefully.


If there is a positive side to these situations it would have to be that the cattle market is the most aggressive it has been in years and that the cow/calf producer has an opportunity to be profitable. As it is, with profit margins wider than normal, a bit more room exists to cover some additional costs for supplemental or replacement feeds and forages and still maintain a profit. Once again, this illustrates the need for complete and accurate records and knowing what your production costs are. This is the basis of decisions you may need to make in a season of tight forage supplies.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutrition and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at sblez@verizon.net.

Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!