by: Stephen B. Blezinger
In the last issue we began a discussion of farm analytics, the various things a producer should measure in an effort to better understand what different conditions are on the farms as well as what may be needed to enhance performance. Initially the discussion was on soil testing. It was appropriate to start with the soil because it is the basis of EVERYTHING done and grown on the farm or ranch. But there are a variety of other parameters and conditions that must be measured. As we go through this series we will look at forages, water and animals and the various analyses that every producer should consider as part of a well-designed management plan.
Since we started with soils the next logical step are the forages grown on the soil. For most cow-calf and grazing cattle operations the forage production provides the vast majority of the nutrients the animals need to survive, reproduce, produce milk, grow and remain healthy. Ideally, if we manage the soil and forages correctly, these will produce the majority of the nutrients needed. The idea is to minimize supplementation and its associated cost as much as possible but this can only be done if the forages and the nutrients contained will meet the animal's maintenance and production nutrient requirements.
Forage testing allows us to balance feeding programs and proper supplementation (protein, energy, minerals and vitamins), reducing costs and improving the overall nutritional plane for the herd. This further allows for improved performance and profits. It provides a picture of what the current status of forage nutrient density is and can help the producer improve future crop management if present forage is of less-than-hoped-for quality. Finally, it can help us evaluate the value of the plant material as a nutrient source and help us determine equitable prices for feedstuffs based on nutritive value.
Forage testing is more than grabbing a handful of hay from a bale or pulling grass out of the pasture, shoving it in a plastic bag and mailing it to a lab. Each cattle operation should develop its own forage testing program to help “inventory” nutrients, both growing and stored. As mentioned, the nutrients provided from forages on the farm are a bit of a moving target. Pastures sampled in late March will be different in nutrient values in mid-July. These changes may be accentuated if rainfall is depressed. Forage sampling should evaluate several types of forage:
1) Forages grown and grazed for pastures (warm and cool season)
2) Forage grown for harvest for feeding at a later time (when growing forages are in short supply.
3) Forages that have been purchased for feeding at a later time.
Let's address Item 3 for a moment. Over the last few years, many producers have become acquainted with buying hay during drought periods when forages on their operations has been short or even non-existent. Use of forage testing becomes a value proposition. So much hay is traded sight unseen with no knowledge (on the buyer's part) of the bale weight, level of contamination and nutrient density. Unfortunately there are no true standards in the hay trading industry, especially in the trade of round bales of grass hay going into the beef cow market. And, even more unfortunately, there are individuals out there trading hay that are not particularly ethical. When buying hay, always ask for (even though you probably will not get it), to buy the hay based on weight (i.e. $/ton, not $/bale) and for forage test information. Outside of alfalfa producers who routinely sell hay based on weight, round bales of grass hay are most commonly sold by the bale. A practice I would definitely like to see change! If you cannot get a forage assay from the seller and you still decide to purchase, make sure you test the bales you receive so you know what you are working with. For more information on the issue of using purchased hay please go to http://cattletoday.com/archive/2015/November/CT3265.php and http://cattletoday.com/archive/2015/December/CT3269.php.
Production of quality forages is not something that occurs overnight. It takes time and investments in soil sampling, fertilization and subsequent forage sampling. It also requires timely harvesting and appropriate storage methods. Quality forage is produced by attention to detail and controlling as many of the variables as possible. The emphasis here is knowing what you are starting with and where you are as you go through this process. One of the best investments you can make in a given year is to forage test and use a forage testing procedure which includes analyses for the fiber components discussed above. Many times a producer tests only for dry matter, protein, TDN and maybe a few minerals. This information is helpful but does not provide an indicator of maturity and digestibility of the plant material. One thing to understand is that the values shown in a forage test are not totally available to the cow. As you see the fiber numbers discussed increasing, we can assume that the digestibility and subsequently the availability of the other nutrients such as protein is decreasing.
It is helpful to test growing forages periodically to determine where they stand on nutrient content and digestibility indicators. It can also give us an indicator of how good of a job we are doing in the soil and plant fertility department. Normally, what we see as the spring and summer months progress is an increase in the overall fiber components of growing forages which is less closely related to actual plant maturity as it is to climatic and seasonal conditions. For this reason it is advisable to keep growing forages somewhat shorter and in the growing stage and out of the adult/seed head production stage. Also, as stores of forage are harvested for late fall and winter months, it is good to know how each cutting tests. In this manner, you can determine which stored forage lot is to be fed to which group of cattle and how supplementation levels need to be altered to best match this deficiency. A quick sampling procedure would include the following:
1) Group hay cuttings together so they can be easily identified. In other words, if stacking outside or in a barn, keep all the hay from a given cutting in one area. If necessary, identify where the group stops and starts. A given cutting from a given field needs to be grouped in a specific area so you can modify your supplementation program as you change feeding from one grouping or lot to another. Also, if possible, group bales from specific parts of a given field that may have distinctive or different soil characteristics. In other words, if a given field has a section that is very sandy and another that is more clay-based, try to separate these groups of hay. Also, document or map where your groups are positioned to help you remember what is where.
2) Prepare in advance by having the correct tools. You will need a forage probe, pen and paper, clean cardboard box, Zip-lock® bags and a permanent marker. Several different forage probes exist on the market, each designed to take a 3/4 to 1 inch core, approximately 12 to 18” into a bale. Probe types include those which can be “drilled” in using a brace or a cordless drill, those which are driven in using a mallet or hammer, etc. You can find a listing of various probes along with manufacturer contact information at the national Forage Testing Association's website: http://foragetesting.org/index.php?page=hay_probes. I personally prefer the “push-type” hay probe. It is simple, easy to use and compact. Cost of a good, push-type probe is around $100 - $125.
3) Sample each cutting of hay shortly after it is baled. Sample at least 10 percent of the bales in a given cutting or group of no more than 80 to 100 bales. Normally it works best when the hay has been moved in to place in your hay trap or in the barn. At this point go through and randomly sample 10% of the bales. After each bale is probed, empty the sample into the cardboard box. Once all the samples have been obtained, thoroughly mix the samples and remove enough to fill a quart-sized Zip-lock® bag 1/2 to 3/4 of the way full. Force as much air out of the bag as possible by rolling from the bottom and seal.
If you are sampling wrapped silage (haylage) bales, be sure to carry a pocket knife and a roll of duct tape with you. Make a small slit in the plastic (do not tear the hole), probe the bale through the slit and then tape over securely with the duct tape. Air is silage/haylage's worst enemy so sealing over the opening as quickly as possible after sampling is important. Once you have the silage sample bagged, as noted above, force as much air out as possible. With high moisture samples (this would include grass clippings), if they will not be shipped immediately throw them into the freezer until you are ready to ship.
Label the sample with the permanent marker listing your name, the date, location and cutting. Once all your samples have been collected in this manner they can be placed in a large envelope or small box for shipment to the lab.
4) With your samples, send along a cover letter listing your name and address along with a list of the samples you are including and include for each sample the same data as written on the sample bag. This simply helps the lab keep track of your samples. The lab may have submission forms or bags. In some cases they may have postage paid bags. You need to get these from the lab in advance of taking your samples.
5) There are a fairly large number of forage testing labs and likely one fairly close to your location. The National Forage Testing Association has a list of certified forage testing labs (http://www.foragetesting.org/files/2013_Certified_Labs.pdf). Depending on the lab you use, your test results may take seven days to two weeks to get to you from the day you mail them. The lab can generally email or fax the results to you. Once you receive these results, closely evaluate the data. From this information you can determine which forage is of better quality and which hay needs to be fed to given groups of cows at any given point in time. This also tells you that when you start feeding a different grouping or cutting of hay you may have to increase or decrease supplementation.
Forage tests can provide you with a huge amount of valuable data to help in your decision making process and is always a good investment if performed carefully and judiciously. The time and dollars you spend on obtaining this information can save you countless dollars down the road.
Copyright 2016 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulfur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information please visit us at Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.
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