The drought that prevailed during the summer and early fall throughout the state has created difficulty for cattle producers. Beef producers have gone from a situation in which it looked like there was plenty of hay to a possibility of short feed supplies this winter.
Many beef producers started feeding hay as early as August and September and others will start winter feeding earlier than usual. Stockpiling fescue may give zero to poor results because of the drought. Many beef cattle producers are short of forage. Excessive rain in the spring also caused hay to be somewhat variable in quality.
Following are some forage and cattle management suggestions that should aid producers in making it through the winter:
I. Assess the feed supply situation. How many cattle are to be wintered? How can they be effectively and economically wintered? Will there be adequate feed? These should be the first questions to answer. Get this done early to make adjustments. Following are some suggestions that should help with the situation. Estimate hay needs. A cow can eat 25 to 30 pounds of hay a day and waste a couple of more pounds. This adds up to 27 to 32 pounds per day per cow. Allow about half this amount for weanling calves and about three‑quarters for yearlings. Plan to feed until April 1. If feeding hay from November 1 until April 1, this is five months! This could easily total 4,000 to 4,800 pounds, or 2 to 2.4 tons, of hay fed per cow. Estimate hay available. Large round bales often do not weigh as much as producers think. It is typical for so called thousand pound bales to weigh eight hundred pounds or less. Plus, bales stored outside on the ground may easily lose 20 to 30 percent. Even covered bales can lose 10 to 15 percent, if a portion of the bales are in contact with the ground. If storage conditions are not ideal and bale weights are suspect, adjust to obtain more realistic estimates. Example with 10 cows: Allow 4,000 lbs. per cow or 40,000 total lb. Bales weighed 925 lb. in June, but lost 15 percent in storage, and now weigh 761 lb. Divide 40,000 by 761 to see that it may take 52 to 53 bales to feed 10 cows. If the bales actually weighed over 1,000 lb. at harvest and there was little loss, only 40 to 42 bales may be needed to feed the same number of cows. Cull the herd. This is the time to look closely for the nonproducers, the cows with bad teeth and the late calvers. Pregnancy check and do not over-winter open cows.
II. Look for additional forage alternatives. Beef cattle have the ability to consume numerous types of feed and perform well. If needed, purchase hay. Some people may currently have hay for sale, but supplies may be tight by February or March. After estimating hay needs for the herd, if extra hay is needed, purchase it now before supplies decrease and cost increases. Consider forage alternatives. Poultry litter, where available, may be an option this year. Litter is widely used but often takes considerable labor, and it has generally been used as fertilizer in Tennessee. However, if hay is limited, litter is available and additional culling is not desirable, consider feeding it. Detailed information is available from Agricultural Extension Service agents. Another popular forage substitute is commercially prepared pasture cubes. These cubes, or large pellets, can be fed on the ground or (preferably) in troughs and are designed to substitute for some portion of the hay. Use crop residues. When available, crop residues can trim many days off the winter hay feeding period. Inexpensive, easily erected temporary electric fencing may make this a more viable option in certain situations. Corn crop residue can easily be baled and limit fed.
III. Stretch hay supplies with supplements. This may be the best strategy for many producers, because concentrate feedstuffs are available at attractive prices and are likely to remain so much of the winter. The challenge is to develop the most economical feeding program. Following are three suggestions that should aid producers in selecting and feeding a protein supplement.
A. Start with a forage test. A forage test will give a relatively accurate assessment of hay quality and serve as a basis for supplementation decisions. If using The University of Tennessee Forage Testing Service, please note on the form if results of the test are to be used to "stretch" forage supplies. In general, the Forage Testing Service balances rations to maximize the use of homegrown hay and only recommends adding enough supplement to overcome nutrient deficiencies. If forage is limited, the strategy changes and supplements are added to "substitute" for forage. If possible, provide the alternative concentrates that are preferred and available. Then the Forage Testing Service can develop suggestions for substituting concentrate feeds in place of limited hay.
B. Understand basic nutritional principles that apply. Understanding a few basic nutritional principles can help when trying to stretch hay supplies. Following are five principles that producers should understand.
(1) High starch supplement feeds may depress consumption and use of forage. Research shows that high starch feeds, such as corn, fed at as little as 0.4 percent of body weight, may depress consumption and use of the base forage. If a lot of corn is fed to cattle, expect them to eat less forage. In "free choice" forage situations, such as stockering calves on pasture, feeding too much corn can work against converting forage to gain. This often leads producers to either avoid feeding no more than 5 or 6 pounds of corn to cows on hay, or to consider lower starch alternatives that may actually improve the use of the base forage. These could include soy hulls, wheat Midds or commercial mixtures containing these or other lower-starch feed that still have enough TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) to help keep cow condition up.
(2) Corn may be "substituted" for hay. This may seem to contradict the preceding principle, but really does not. High starch feeds, such as corn, do decrease use of forages in a "free-choice" forage situation. However, when forage is limited, corn can be used to "stretch" the hay supply, especially when corn is relatively inexpensive. Always adapt cattle slowly to corn over a 7 to 10 day period. The rate of substitution is about five pounds of corn for nine pounds of hay. An easier rule of thumb to remember is one pound of corn can replace two pounds of hay. Do not feed less than five pounds of hay per day with corn. Other feed sources may be less expensive sources of energy, and may have less negative effects on forage use. Possibilities include wheat Midds, whole cottonseed, soybean hulls or commercial mixtures containing least cost mixed proportions of these and other feedstuffs.
(3) With low-quality forages, protein often improves forage consumption and use. This is because the protein requirements of the rumen microbes must be met if forage is going to be effectively used. If hay doesn't meet the protein requirements of the animal, add supplemental protein. For example, adding as little as a pound a day of a 30 to 40 percent protein feed could increase total hay consumption and assist in keeping cows in optimal body condition. Soybean meal, cottonseed meal, corn gluten feed, whole cottonseed and commercial mixtures are some suggested protein sources.
(4) Provide adequate mineral supplements. Minerals do not have to be super expensive to work, but rarely are the "cheapest" alternatives the best. This is especially true for managers who have selected for milk production and improved calf growth in their cow herd. Genetically superior cattle have higher mineral requirements. This becomes even more apparent if nutritional needs are being stretched in a difficult weather situation.
(5) Processing feeds may or may not improve efficiency. Many feedstuffs (milo, whole soybeans) need to be at least coarsely ground or hammered to make nutrients available, while others do not. Most research has shown that only marginal benefits are gained from grinding corn. In fact, fine grinding of corn increases dust and makes it more likely to cause digestive upset. The best argument for using a coarsely ground or cracked corn is that it improves mixing with other ingredients.
(6) Pick a supplement that fits the situation. Many producers do not have time to carefully mix ingredients and balance rations. Some do not have time for daily feeding. Some products, such as whole cottonseed, are excellent sources of both energy and protein, but generally require considerable labor in feeding. Consider labor and equipment in selecting a feed to stretch forages. However, most of the low labor alternatives cost more. This is often termed the "cost of convenience." A feed that is expensive to one producer may be a bargain to another.
IV. Manage feeding to stretch hay supplies. With tight feed supplies, management becomes critical. Every day of winter brings a new set of questions. Do I need to feed tonight or tomorrow morning? There is a little hay left in the rings, should the cows clean it up or is the quality of the remnant hay too poor? Is there too much mud around the hay racks, and should I move it to another location? All producers must answer these and other questions to the best of their ability. No one will answer all the questions correctly every time, but the producer who consistently makes wrong decisions will find poor results at the end of winter and on into rebreeding time. Following are some suggestions that should help carry out an efficient economical wintering program. Feed in hay rings. Most cattle producers know this, but it is important to emphasize. Without rings, consider unrolling hay, but only if the amount that can be consumed in one feeding can be unrolled. If too much is unrolled, cows will use the excess for bedding. Cut and remove the strings on large bales fed in bay rings as well as that unrolled. Learn when to feed more hay. This is easier said than done. Sometimes the last 1/4 to 1/3 of a large round hay bale is weather damaged, spoiled and has low nutritive value. Forcing cattle to eat this may decrease both production and body condition. Conversely, replenishing hay before the cattle have eaten the "good parts" of previously fed hay is inefficient and wasteful with limited hay supplies. Developing the knack to feed correctly may require that the manager carefully observe the remnant hay in the feeder to assess quality. Avoid excessive mud. Walking through mud very quickly burns energy. Many days of this can definitely decrease performance and body condition. It is also hard on the person who does the feeding. If rock outcrops or old road beds are available, use them. Many producers are constructing hay feeding areas with crushed run gravel over geotextile. Discuss this with Agricultural Extension Service agents or N.R.C.S. representatives. Increase hay allotment in cold weather. Nothing makes body heat better than consumption of plenty of good hay. Corn does not increase body heat as well as hay. A little protein (see earlier comments) will allow cows to better digest hay and increase body heat.
V. Watch the cows! Carefully observe the body condition of the cow herd. Strive to keep the herd average in the 5.0 body condition score at calving (only minimal ribs showing; back bone and hooks visible but covered). When too many ribs and backbones are showing, increase hay or supplement, Cows with body condition in the 4.0 range have been shown to be slower to re-breed and less likely to breed at all. This is particularly true with first calf heifers. Calves born to poorly conditioned cows are likely to have lighter birth weights and be more susceptible to scours and pneumonia. These calves often will not suckle and survival is poor. Severely undernourished cows may not have adequate colostrum to prevent disease.